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CMSD To Begin Return To In-Person Learning March 1

Students will return in phases based on level of assistance needed. [Ashton Marra / ideastream]
Empty chairs and tables in a pre-k classroom.

Updated: 6:01 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19, 2021

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District will begin rolling out returns to in-person schooling March 1. The announcement comes after CMSD faced criticism from Gov. Mike DeWine last week for not having a plan in place.

DeWine had made restarting  in-person classes a condition of receiving the coronavirus vaccine for faculty and staff.

Students interested in returning will be sorted into groups based on the level of assistance needed, said CMSD CEO Eric Gordon.

“These are phased in, so we’ll be doing them in windows with some orientation, with some teacher professional development, and getting parents and students acclimated,” Gordon said.

The first group, consisting primarily of students with learning disabilities and some off-track seniors, will begin a hybrid learning model March 1. A second group, including English learners, off-track 9 th and 12 th graders, and pre-k through second grade students, will begin March 8. All remaining students will return March 15. Families will receive a mailer with more information starting next week.

The district will rely on a hybrid model, Gordon said, with students alternating in-person and remote learning throughout the week to limit the number of people in buildings at one time.

“Because of capacity and logistical issues, we are not able to bring all students back every day,” Gordon said.

About 54 percent of families in the district have expressed a desire to return to in-person learning, Gordon said. The remaining 46 percent will continue fully remote learning, he said. That divide creates additional challenges for the district, he said.

“We’re going to have to run two school systems, one for the kids who are back, and one for the kids who are not,” Gordon said. “And that’s part of why it’s been more complicated for us than other communities where most kids and families have returned.”

Gov. Mike DeWine called out CMSD in a press conference late last week for not having a plan to return to in-person learning. In order to continue receiving vaccines for teachers, DeWine said, districts would have to plan a March 1 return.

The timeline for reopening the district is optimistic, said Cleveland Teachers Union President Shari Obrenski.

Though Gordon said the district has outfitted buildings with signage, improved ventilation and installed safety precautions such as Plexiglass barriers, the union still wants to see more mitigation measures in place to ensure compliance with guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obrenski said their safety concerns include improved ventilation in each classroom, personal protective equipment and handwashing and sanitization stations.

“We are concerned that, at this point in time, the things that need to be in place to make that happen are not there yet,” Obrenski said in an interview with ideastream. “We’re going to have a lot of hard work to do over the next few days and weeks to make that happen, and to meet that timeline is going to be, I think, very difficult.”

The union is expecting the district to roll back its in-person learning plans if it is not prepared to meet CDC guidelines by March 1, Obrenski said. The district has been in close communication with the union, she said, but they’re being held to an “arbitrary timeline” established by Gov. DeWine.

Many teachers still won’t be vaccinated by March 1, Obrenski said, as the district didn’t begin receiving vaccines until February 8, three weeks after the vaccinations were supposed to be rolled out.

“The Governor made no provisions for a delay in his timeline to ensure that the vaccinations could occur,” Obrenski said.

The district has vaccinated about 4,600 staff and faculty so far, Gordon said. Vaccinations for Friday and Saturday have been canceled due to weather-related delay of vaccine shipments, he said, but more will take place Feb. 25 and 26.

Vaccines are only part of the equation, Obrenski said. Opening the district for in-person learning as teachers are still receiving the vaccines presents additional problems. If anyone ends up feeling sick for a day or two after they receive the shots, she said, it puts additional strain on already stressed faculty and staff.

“In a time where you’re doing hybrid learning and you have limited staff dealing with a limited number of students, having even two or three staff members absent means you’re starting to go over room capacity,” Obrenski said.

There are other factors contributing to the uncertainty around the current timeline for reopening, she said.

“The difficulty here is not, vaccinated or not vaccinated. It’s that we still have community numbers that are nearly 300 per 100,000. Plus, we don’t have all the mitigation measures in place,” Obrenski said. “There are a lot of just practical issues that we’re going to need to address to make sure that we can keep our staff and our students safe.”

CMSD officials have spoken with DeWine to explain the decisions behind a slower, phased-in return, Gordon said. The district will still be figuring out some of the ways to improve teaching both remote and in-person classes as it begins the return, he said.

“I and my team and our union are working really hard to get our kids back, but that having every kid back on March 1 was a goal that we weren’t likely to make,” Gordon said.

“I know people have anxiety about this, and that anxiety got worse when we got a lot of public attention,” he said. “But I also know there’s a lot of excitement about getting to see our kids in-person again, even if they have to see each other six feet apart.”

In a written statement Friday, Obrenski said CMSD teachers would “return to in-person learning when it is safe for us and our students to return. Until then, we will continue educating Cleveland’s children remotely.”

Spring athletics are set to begin Feb. 22, Gordon said. That includes baseball, softball, boys tennis and outdoor track.