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

Northeast Ohio K-12 Schools Welcome Students Back, With Safety Top Of Mind

Bottles of hand sanitizer await students in Willoughby-Eastlake classrooms. [Caroline Beal]
Empty classroom at Willoughby-Eastlake Schools in Northeast Ohio

Homeroom: A Return to Learning

This story is part of ideastream's special series examining the challenges and perils of returning to school during the coronavirus pandemic.

Northeast Ohio school administrators have spent most of the summer creating a plan to keep students and staff safe on campus for in-class instruction.

They’ll tell you it’s a daunting task, with no assurances that a student or staff member won’t get the coronavirus. But, they’ll add, their safety plans have been carefully thought out and created with input from many stakeholders.

Administrators, by and large, are following the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control, the Ohio Department of Education and their individual county health departments. Across the board, wearing a mask rather than a face shield, social distancing, hand hygiene and a robust sanitation policy are seen as the keys to safeguarding against COVID-19.

Accel Charter Schools

Students at some of the Accel Charter Schools in Northeast Ohio begin school Aug. 27.  As they enter the buildings, they’ll have their temperatures checked. The staff will be screened for fevers, too, and will have to fill out a health survey. 

Iteisha Bankston, regional vice president of Accel Schools, said everyone will adhere to another rule: all staff and students from kindergarten through 12th grade must wear masks.

“It's mandatory for everybody. Everybody has to have them,” Bankston said. “Every school has been provided with a supply of N95 masks for staff as well as three-ply blue medical-grade masks for students.”

When it’s time to eat lunch, Bankston said some Accel schools will provide partitions.

“So, they're going to be not only distanced, but there's also those shields in place for them while they're having lunch in the common area,” Bankston said.

Many schools and districts are having students eat lunch at their desk or with their “cohort” in the lunch room, on a staggered schedule.

Accel Schools in Northeast Ohio offered students three models for the fall: all in-person classes, a hybrid model that includes two days of in-class instruction or an all-remote option. Bankston said with only some students on campus five days a week, spacing was easier to address.

Twinsburg City School District

All students return to learning at Twinsburg Schools on Sept. 8.  Prior to the first day of school, students attending in-person class will participate in the district's "soft opening" days, intended on re-familiarizing everyone with campus and with COVID-19 protocols, according to Superintendent Kathi Powers.

Powers said adhering to social distancing guidelines was central to the district’s safety plan and arranging each classroom took a lot of orchestration.

“Because of where the door is, where the teacher's teaching materials are, where technology is pointing,” Powers said. “All of those things.”

District officials moved students in certain grades to new buildings and classrooms have been arranged to eliminate anything unnecessary, giving priority to desks and space for students to move around without passing too close.

“We’ve done what we were asked to do to ensure the space requirements are in place for everybody,” Powers said.

Classrooms have fixed hand sanitizer pumps, which staff and students are required to use every time they exit or enter the room. After much discussion, it was decided high school students will still move from class to class this fall, but staff will clean the desks and the hallways when students change rooms.

Summit and Cuyahoga county health department guidelines require school restrooms must be cleaned every two hours and Twinsburg, like other nearby districts, is following suit.  

Dan Higgins, head custodian at R.B. Chamberlin Middle School, said Twinsburg schools bought several electrostatic sprayers to add to their arsenal against the coronavirus. The electrostatic cleaner emits a statically charged spray, allowing cleaning chemicals to instantly latch onto surfaces, “wrap around desks” and kill most viruses.

“The electrostatic sprayer allows us to cover a lot more ground and achieve a better outcome of disinfection,” Higgins said.

School districts across the region have invested in electrostatic sprayers. In Twinsburg, the transportation department will also use them to clean the buses, Higgins said.

“Our buses will be disinfected between each run for the buildings,” he said, adding, “there'll be one student per seat.”

Willoughby-Eastlake City School District

Willoughby-Eastlake students who opted for the all in-person model or the remote learning model will start class Aug. 31.

Teachers arrived on campus two weeks ahead of time to go over COVID-19 safety protocols and to become more proficient with “Schoology,” the virtual education platform the district is using for remote learning.

The district just received seven Clorox 360 electrostatic sprayers to be used in the buildings and on equipment and hired extra janitorial staff to help maintain a more rigorous cleaning schedule.

But even with safety measures and plans in place, schools and districts across Northeast Ohio are bracing for the first moment someone turns up COVID positive, and a new set of plans and procedures kicks in.

“If one or more students in an elementary, self-contained class are exposed, then that class is quarantined for 14 days, to include the teacher,” said Willoughby-Eastlake Schools Superintendent Steve Thompson. “They would flip to remote learning. If two or more students are COVID positive in an elementary school in different classrooms then the entire school would be quarantined for 14 days and go remote.”

Thompson said he’s been up front with parents that students won’t always be socially distanced and the district must have contingency plans in place.

But students are only part of the worry. He’s also concerned about maintaining staffing levels if teachers have to quarantine.

“We are hiring, building subs for the first time – permanent building subs,” Thompson said.  “We've never done that before in an effort to try and keep our staffing levels up.”

As for many students’ favorite part of the day, recess will still happen at Willoughby-Eastlake Schools, but don’t expect any games of tag.  Extra aids will be on hand to make sure kids are socially distanced and everyone is wearing a mask while still having some fun.

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