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Reporting on the state of education in your community and across the country.

Akron Schools Make COVID-19 Plans: 'That's About 204,000 Masks A Week'

Akron Public Schools has been creating coronavirus-related safety protocols for their schools in anticipation of fall. [Akron Public Schools]
Front of Akron Public Schools building.

Gov. Mike DeWine expects Ohio’s K-12 students to be in the classroom when the next academic year begins in the fall. How exactly students and staff will be kept safe from the coronavirus while in school, however, is a big question educators are trying to answer now.

Although the state health department will issue coronavirus-related safety guidelines as the new school year gets closer, the responsibility of creating a safe environment falls on the individual districts and schools.

Working out the logistics at Akron Public Schools, with roughly 20,000 students, is a daunting task. Debra Foulk, the district's executive director of business affairs, said in order to game-plan keeping all the students safe, they’re taking it just one student at a time, asking the question “What does the school day look like from the vantage point of one student?"

“Johnny goes to the bus stop,” said Foulk, describing a scenario. “Are we going to be required to take temperatures of students prior to entering a bus? If the student has the correct temperature and is allowed on the bus, are they going to have to be masked while they ride?” 

Administrators also have to tackle how to keep students socially distanced on a school bus that normally carries 65 or 70 passengers.

“If I socially distanced them to the best I could by trying to get closest to that six feet, that goes down to 10 students a bus,” said Foulk.

Then there’s this scenario: What if Johnny has a 100.4 degree temperature?

“Who's making that decision? Is that the driver or is that an additional adult assigned to the bus?,” asked Foulk. “And what happens if the student has got signs, and we don't want them to enter the bus? Who do we turn the student over to?” 

Foulk said once students get to school, they will be required to wear a mask.

“Think of the disposable medical masks – they’re pretty common. They have a range of four hours per day,” said Foulk. “So therefore, in a regular school day, you probably are looking at two masks per student. For us, that’s about 204,000 masks a week.”

Akron Schools expects to spend at least $2 million on masks for students and staff.

Next up, the question of social distancing inside school buildings. 

“How do we put those kind of directions into our hallways? Because our hallways are common areas,” said Foulk. “And if I've got everybody going in to wash hands and do lavatory breaks by classrooms, I now have to socially distance those as they travel, and you want them all in the same direction.”

Foulk said the Summit County Health Department has told the school district the restrooms should be sanitized every two hours.

Then there’s the classroom. If six feet of social distancing is in effect, one first grade class with roughly 25 students would need two classrooms and two teachers. 

What about high school students who typically move between five or six classrooms a day? That question is leading Akron and many school districts across the country to consider some version of a blended school day. But even that road leads to many more questions.

“Is ‘blended’ the fact that I am altering arrival schedules, so that some kids come in at a certain time and are released, and then other kids come in at a different time and then are released?” asked Foulk. “Is ‘blended’ some kids are in school some days and some kids are not?” 

Akron Public Schools is going over all the possibilities so they know exactly how to move forward while adhering to the state health department guidelines before school starts again – which is typically in late August.

Administrators also need to know how much all of this could potentially cost. 

Ryan Pendleton, the district’s Chief Financial Officer, said the Akron is already looking at certain “non-negotiables” when it comes to coronavirus, such as personal protective equipment, sanitation supplies and extra janitorial staffing.  

“Does that mean that we can afford to buy many additional busses outside of what we were normally planning on? Probably not,” Pendleton said. “Does that mean that we're going to go out and hire a large group of certificated teachers in a certain area? Those are questions for the superintendent and board and community to discuss, because those are budget constraints that will add up quickly. And obviously, we couldn't sustain that.”

The district has been sharing its modeling and projections with legislators in Columbus, hoping it informs DeWine’s decision making when it comes to how to use Ohio’s $2.7 billion “Rainy Day” fund. DeWine has already cut $300 million from K-12 education under coronavirus constraints and districts, including Akron, are concerned more cuts are coming

Pendleton notes it’s been eight years since Akron Schools passed an operating levy, adding that the district will have to determine when to put a new one on the ballot.