After introducing their Responsible Restart Plan, the district faces a mix of backlash and support from hundreds of community members.
By Callia Peterson, ’22
Instead of rushing to greet friends in the hallways of UAHS and grabbing desks in their new teachers’ classrooms, on Aug. 19 students began their first day of school tuning into webinars and joining Zoom meetings in their pajamas.
As of Aug. 15, over five million Americans have been infected with the novel coronavirus and 167,546 Americans have died. In Franklin County alone, there have been 19,437 cases and 537 deaths.
Across the nation, school districts are scrambling to meet the needs of parents, students and educators while the deadly coronavirus rages through the country.
Despite the closure of schools all across Ohio on March 16, some passionate parents are calling for schools across Ohio to reopen. These parents include some in Franklin County, which has reported new cases each day at a much higher rate than in March.
In contrast, other parents in Franklin County have applauded the school districts that plan to teach remotely, which includes the majority of districts in Franklin County.
On July 29, the UA School District proposed their “Responsible Restart Plan” which consists of a fully online platform, UA Online Academy, and a school-based option that will be remote until at least Sept. 18. Two days later, the UA Board of Education approved the plan unanimously. Days after the vote, a lawsuit was filed against the district.
“It’s the most complex and chaotic situation that I personally could have imagined outside of a war, like a war on American soil,” math teacher Daniel Rohrs said. “I can’t imagine that any teacher in today’s day and age would have thought something like this would happen.”
The Responsible Restart Plan was created from student, parent and teacher feedback including 12,000 touch points from surveys and the research and updated guidance from many agencies including the Center of Disease Control (CDC), American Academy of Pediatrics, the Ohio Department of Health and Franklin County Public Health.
The Director of Communications for Upper Arlington Schools Karen Truett said after receiving an abundance of feedback from parents, students and teachers in late May, the staff members that compose the Teaching and Learning Department created two educational pathways for families to choose from: a school-based option and a fully remote option.
Truett also said that the district’s Operations Department found ways to best implement cleaning and disinfection in the buildings, buses and outdoor facilities. They also figured out how to maximize physical distancing in hallways and classrooms.
The work of these two departments is reflected in the Responsible Restart Plan.
The fully remote option of the Responsible Restart Plan is named UA Online Academy and will use the platform and curriculum of Acellus to teach students.
Initially, the plan provided a school-based option that would vary depending on the level of severity Franklin County was designated under the Ohio Public Health Advisory System. However, this was later changed to abide by the recommendations of local public health officials.
In the original plan, if Franklin County was under a level one or two alert, students would be in school five days a week with masks, sanitation precautions and three feet of social distancing.
The original plan also stipulates that students would follow a hybrid schedule if Franklin County was under a level three alert (the same level it is as of Aug. 17 and has been for the majority of the summer). In this plan only half of the students would attend school each day and the other half would engage in distance learning, alternating every two or three days depending on the week. Students in the building would be required to wear masks, follow safety precautions and maintain six feet of distance.
Finally, the original plan proposed a Enhanced Distance Learning model for all students in the school-based option if Franklin County was under a level four alert.
The Board of Education was supposed to vote on the first plan on July 29, however, that same day, the plan for students who chose the school-based option changed dramatically. While the fully remote option of UA Online Academy did not change, the school-based option did.
In the new plan, students in the school-based option are expected to engage in distance learning until at least Sept. 18, and the decision of whether or not to move to hybrid learning depends on recommendations from public health officials and would likely require a sustained decrease in the Franklin County’s risk level for at least four consecutive weeks.
The new plan does not include a five-days-a-week option. Local health officials recommended nothing less than six feet of social distancing, which is unachievable if all students are in the buildings at once.
On July 31, the Board of Education unanimously approved the new plan.
“It’s been a tremendous team effort, and the key to everything has had to be flexibility,” Superintendent Paul Imhoff said. “We continue to meet weekly with officials from Franklin County Public Health and Columbus Public Health. We also consult regularly with experts from Nationwide Children’s Hospital. We will continue to follow the latest health guidance and adapt with the situation as needed.”
UA Board of Education President Nancy Dress and her fellow board members received hundreds of emails from community members about their opinions on the Responsible Restart Plan. She said that the current plan is the best way to ensure the safety of students, faculty and families.
“We all want our students back in school full time. As educators and board members, we understand the value of the full in-person school experience and want our students and staff to be able to return to that as soon as it is safe,” Drees said. “We will continue to follow the science and rely on the experts at the state and local health departments for guidance. In the meantime we are focused on doing everything possible to support our students and provide high quality educational experiences.”
Even before the district released an official reopening plan, the community was divided.
While rumors of hybrid and distance learning spread throughout the city, parents seeking five days a week of in-person school joined together in social media groups, notably a Facebook group titled “UA Parents for 5 Days a Week of In-Person School.”
Meanwhile, parents fearing the risk of spreading COVID-19 in school buildings waited anxiously for a digital learning option and advocated for a variation of what distance learning looked like in the spring or for a hybrid option.
Jim Edwards, a parent of three UAHS graduates and an eight-year-old daughter at Tremont Elementary School, is a vocal advocate for five days of in-person learning.
Edwards said that students should be able to go back to school five days a week and protect themselves from the virus by wearing masks and following sanitary precautions. Yet, unlike the local health officials advising the district, Edwards does not believe that six feet of distancing is necessary to prevent the spread.
“Six feet is an arbitrary number cooked up by the CDC,” he said. “No one knows that three feet apart doesn’t work also. This is an experiment. So, what we are doing is we are experimenting doing nothing. We will never know until we actually move forward with being at school.”
Parents in favor of going to school full time in-person voiced concerns for access to the child care, “irreparable damage” to students’ educations, mental health, loss of sports opportunities and concerns for students with disabilities.
There are other parents who are concerned about the spread of the coronavirus in schools, especially if social distancing cannot be enforced with all students in the building full time. They worry that under the in-person model the spread of the virus would be inevitable and would cost the lives of students, faculty, administrators and families.
Pediatric pulmonologist and parent Kavitha Kotha is choosing to not send her children to the school building, and she has instead signed them up for UA Online Academy.
“As much as I want kids in the classroom, with the current level of community spread, [and] even with the precautions in place, there will be cases occurring in the school. As someone responsible for my family and to my patients, that risk wasn’t one I was ready to take,” she said.
Rohrs expressed support for the district’s handling of the pandemic and its effects on school. Rohrs said he and his family are vulnerable to this virus.
“I think the administration has been very receptive and understanding to the safety of the students, parents, staff, the faculty, the administration—everybody,” Rohrs said. “Dr. Imhoff has done a really nice job of really listening to the Franklin County Health Department and [is] doing a good job of changing his mind based on what he was hearing.”
Language Arts and Capstone teacher Laura Moore said she also supported the precautions the district is taking, and she urged individuals to take the virus seriously.
“I think that anyone who isn’t concerned needs to be more cautious,” Moore said. “I feel really good about the fact that our administration cares so much about the safety and well-being of students and staff. They really tried to take into consideration what we know about the [corona]virus and what we don’t know to try to make sure that we’re not using members of our community as guinea pigs.”
Senior Izzy Petersen said that the fastest way to get back into the building is to start by “playing on the safe side.”
“I’d much rather be in online school right now and get the rest of our school year than open too early and then not have the rest of our school year,” Petersen said.
Senior Aidan Vanek chose to enroll in UA Online Academy to protect his brother who is immunocompromised.
“I have a younger brother who has a special medical condition where if he gets sick, something like the flu or a common cold [that] might take us like a week or so to kick, could take him months. So, I decided it would be best for me to make sure that I don’t add the extra risk of going to school to him. My brothers are doing it, too, so it was more like a family decision for us,” Vanek said.
Although Vanek is choosing the fully virtual option, he said he supported the district’s decision of enhanced distance learning and eventually a hybrid schedule.
“I think that the hybrid learning where [students go into the building] when it’s safe [is] fine. I do think if the school goes back in session fully, an outbreak is bound to happen,” he said.
Senior Lilly Kurfees suggested that parents are likely more opposed to the district’s plan than their children.
“I think the parents are more frustrated by online school than the kids are,” Kurfees said. “The kids understand having to stay home and do online school.”
Senior Audrey Spielman, daughter of Chris Spielman, who has publicly supported a lawsuit suing the district for its current plan, said she understands the district’s decision.
“Obviously I want to go back to school. I think most high schoolers are a little bit anxious to go back, but I think until everyone figures everything out, it’s okay to do everything online for a little bit,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s the best idea to go back to school in the near future because if one person has [coronavirus] then that could get the whole school infected. I think it’s pretty safe what they’re doing right now, just by having school online.”
Principal Andrew Theado said he recognized that there are differing opinions on how to start school in the fall, but that the district was making the best possible decision they could with the information they had.
“I’ve never seen the community so divided on something,” Theado said. “Our Board of Education [and] our superintendent listen to everybody, [but] it’s hard because regardless of the decision, folks are gonna be upset one way or another.”
On Aug. 6, the parents of an anonymous Hastings Middle School student filed a suit in the Franklin County Common Pleas Court challenging the district’s decision to begin the school year fully online.
The Columbus Dispatch reported that according to the lawsuit, the Hastings student, dubbed “Jane Doe” to maintain anonymity, receives special education services and has regressed due to online learning. Other plaintiffs have signed on since, including another anonymous plaintiff identified as “John Doe.”
The Dispatch also wrote that the lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to prevent school from starting online. The family hopes that the court will force the district to offer an option of in-person learning.
The family started a GoFundMe page to raise money to cover legal fees. The page has raised $25,500 as of Aug. 18.
Rex Elliot is one of the lawyers that represent plaintiffs Jane and John Doe in the lawsuit. He explained the plaintiffs’ position in a statement.
“We have learned of the devastating harm to children who are forced to learn online such as severe regression in their development, poor fitness, removal of nutritional needs, ability to socialize, depression, suicidal tendencies and disparate impact to lower income families that cannot adapt to the technology needs and economic issues faced by single parents or double income families among others,” Elliot said in a statement. “With the precautions being taken by the District, the risk to children and adults alike is minimal and is far outweighed by the harm from not returning.”
Elliot also said that the district has revised the reopening plan to allow certain children with learning challenges to return in person on Aug. 31. However, he emphasized the importance of returning to school full time five days a week.
“We implore the District to continue to explore ways to get kids back to school full time five days a week so their educational development is not stunted any further than it already has been and we can minimize the harm that will follow from keeping kids away from their school buildings,” he said.
On the other side, Petersen said she is frustrated by the lawsuit.
“It makes me angry that people in our district are funding a lawsuit against the school when that money could be going toward the school because if the school needs anything right now, it’s funding to help accommodate every student at home,” Petersen said. “If the people from the lawsuit are claiming that their student can’t be fully accommodated at home, then I would rather that money go to helping them instead of getting the school in more trouble and costing them time and money.”
Moore said that the leaders of the district are making decisions to keep people safe and that the resources that may be lost fighting the lawsuit is disappointing.
“The number one thing that we need to do as educators is take care of our people. That’s foundational,” Moore said. “I trust our leaders have made as good decisions as they can. I have a hard time knowing that there’s so many resources that we don’t have right now and to split some of the time and energy and finances toward [the lawsuit] is hard to see.”
A LITTLE BIT OF GRACE
There is an overwhelming consensus among administrators and educators that starting a new school year in the middle of a global pandemic will have many challenges.
Rohrs said he hopes that everyone offers empathy and understanding during these trying times.
“I would encourage the faculty, staff, the administration, the students and the teachers to give each other what I call a ‘little bit of grace’ during this time, meaning be patient with each other—extremely patient with each other,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that we’re going to have to kind of work through together that we don’t really understand yet.”
Moore said that the situation may not play out perfectly, but she hopes that the community will emerge from the pandemic wiser.
“To try to figure out ways to connect in the same way is a challenge, it’s really hard. But, we’re learners, and we’re gonna do our best. All of us will make mistakes along the way, but it won’t be for a lack of trying or caring,” Moore said. “We’ll all remember this and the way that we responded to it and the way that we sort of dug in and did our best to support one another through it. My hope is that we can all give each other grace and help each other learn throughout the course of it and then on the other side of this year we will be so much wiser and so much more empathic and so much more ready to tackle the problems of the world.”
Theado said he wants students and their families to know how much he and the school staff care about them.
“In these situations, I think of a team or family. I know we can get through this together, I just know it. Our teachers are [going to] deliver great lessons, our kids are gonna learn at high levels and when it’s safe to do so, we’ll work together about getting back in the building,” Theado said. “I just want folks to know that we care about them, and we care about your kids. While we may not always agree [on] how to go about this, I think we all have the same goals: to get a high-quality education, build great relationships and have students come out of Upper Arlington High School as better people, ready to take on all kinds of challenges that the world offers.”