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Q&A: Akron Public Schools, CMSD Back To In-Person Learning Starting March 8

Akron Public Schools will move to a in-person learning model with the first phase starting the week of March 8. [Akron Public Schools]

In a matter of weeks, Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) and Akron Public Schools students will have the option to move to in-person learning, nearly one year after all students in both districts abruptly switched to remote learning at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Morning Edition host Glenn Forbes talked with ideastream education reporter Jenny Hamel about the logistics behind the big change for students and educators.

CMSD CEO Eric Gordon announced yesterday that the students’ return to in-person school would be delayed by one week. That means the first group of kids won’t go back into classrooms until March 8.

I think this reveals the tension between Gov. Mike DeWine and the pressure he’s putting on districts to meet the March 1 reopening deadline. The fact is that CMSD and teachers want to get kids back in class but they also really want to make sure it’s safe in light of COVID-19 and the disproportional impact the pandemic is having on communities of color.

Shari Obrenski, head of the Cleveland Teachers Union, told me the March 1 date just wasn’t viable and they were pushing back. They want assurances that classrooms have proper ventilation and that school buildings are safe.

“This literally could be life or death for some of our members and some of our kids and some of our kids’ families. Let’s not forget the people that they go home to,” Obrenski said. “And so we have to make sure that these things are in place, that right now we have soap and paper towels and disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer and that they are in the building where they’re supposed to be.” 

Where does CMSD’s reopening timeline stand currently?

On March 8, they’ll start with special-needs students, career tech students and seniors who aren’t on track to graduate. Then on March 15, pre-kindergarten through second grade students and English-language learners will return. Then, a week later, all other students will return. And when all the students are phased in, they’ll be going in-person as part of a hybrid model. Gordon says the buildings simply can’t support everyone at once.

But the teachers’ union also brings up the fact that during the first week back in school, about half of the staff will still need to get their second vaccine shot. So Obrenski worries that teachers and staff might be dealing with side effects because of that.

Akron Public Schools is also inviting students back on March 8 and district officials moved up their reopening timeline after pressure from DeWine.

Akron was going to start back later in the month, but DeWine publicly rebuked Akron and other districts where teachers got early vaccinations on the promise to be back in the classroom March 1, so the Akron board voted this week for a new plan.

Students will return to school in two phases. Students with learning disabilities and kindergarten through second grade students will return to the classroom on March 8 and then a week later the rest of the district will return. Akron Schools Superintendent David James says he feels really good about the plan. 

“All of our staff and students have to wear a mask, we’ll have the sanitation of the buildings done, and they have to be socially distant, whether it's in the hallways or in the classroom,” James said. “So we're going with between three and six feet, depending on how many kids are going to be in each individual school. But when they're eating breakfast and lunch, they have to be six feet apart.” 

And Akron staff started getting their first vaccine shots before CMSD did. James says teachers and staff going back March 8 are getting their second shots this weekend so they should be fully vaccinated by their return date.  

There’s a fair number of students that are choosing to stay remote at both CMSD and Akron. How will districts deal with teaching both sets of kids?

Right. So, at Akron, about 70 percent have opted to return and 30 percent have indicated they want to stay remote. So a majority of teachers will return to the classroom and teach those students in person full time. Then, some teachers, who might have medical conditions, will work from home and they’ll work with the remote students.

As for CMSD, about 54 percent of families have expressed a desire to return to in-person learning and the remaining 46 percent will continue with remote learning. Obviously that is a challenge, according to Gordon because you’re essentially running two school systems. One determination that has been made is that teachers teaching students in person will not be teaching students remotely as well.

ideastream's Taylor Haggerty contributed to this reporting.

Jenny Hamel is the host of the “Sound of Ideas.”