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Q&A: School Superintendents Left To Strike Education, Safety COVID Balance

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine left school superintendents and administrators with the responsibility of creating plans that balance safety for staff and students while ensuring kids are educated. [DavidCarpio / Shutterstock]
kids in masks getting on a school bus

Gov. Mike DeWine has said he wanted to give Ohio’s school districts flexibility in their fall reopening decisions. He left superintendents and administrators with the responsibility of creating plans that balance safety for staff and students while ensuring kids are educated.

But some school leaders wanted stronger guidance from the state. ideastream education reporter Jenny Hamel has been reporting on this and more for our series Homeroom: A Return to Learning and she talked with All Things Considered host Tony Ganzer about the latest from Ohio’s K-12 administrators.

What have superintendents had to say about the state guidance?

Many superintendents noticed a shift in the governor's approach. In the spring, they say it was decisive and wide-reaching. He was one of the first governors in the country to shut down all K-12 schools. But what they saw was a morph into a different kind of approach, this each district on its own type of approach. Some guidelines were set down from the state level that included mask wearing, social distancing and establishing a hygiene and sanitation protocol. But ultimately, the onus was with each district or school.

Twinsburg City Schools Superintendent Kathy Power says she respects the Ohio Department of Education leaning towards local control. And she says local control is applicable when it comes to things like student assessments. But when it comes to the coronavirus and health, she says she's certainly not an expert.

“It would have made it a lot easier for school districts with clear-cut expectations and guidance. And then we can all say, no, this is the direction offered by the state officials. And we need to, you know, move the direction that is being mandated for us,” Power said.

It seems like we have an interesting juxtaposition here S:ome educators wanting more state action on corona virus, while a small group of conservative Republican state lawmakers this week drafted impeachment articles against the governor for essentially going too far in coronavirus orders.

Yeah, and I think that speaks to the balancing act the governor has to do. And really, Tony, the educators that I spoke with said this is a story about how politics is affecting the state approach to K-12 schools wading through this pandemic. You know, again, when we rewind to the spring, DeWine was being touted nationwide as someone who was following the science, leading his state on a path to stop the spread of the virus. But the pushback was fierce in Ohio, in the form of protests and rebukes from conservative legislators. And as we know, Dr. Amy Acton ultimately stepped down from her role as health director. And there is speculation that she did so in part because of all those attacks that she faced.

“I think the reaction to Amy Acton's actions and some of that, I think has kind of spooked him,” said Steven Dyer, an education policy fellow with think tank Innovation Ohio as well as former journalist and legislator.  “And he's not being as assertive as he was early on the pandemic. I think over the last few months, what you've seen is a real decentralization of the effort.”

Another example of Gov. DeWine leaving it up to local districts is on the issue of sports. There has been a lot of controversy over whether high school kids can play contact sports or not. Recently, the governor said fall sports can go forward, but the decision is up to each district.

Many districts are going to let sports happen this fall. I think this is a good example of how district boards, superintendents and administrators are facing pressure locally from parents in the community when it comes to everything from sports to reopening campuses at all.

“So decisions are being made at the local level and far too often based on political pressure that's coming at them. And that's real and it's heavy,” said Willoughby-Eastlake Schools Superintendent Steve Thompson.

Jenny, you also spoke with State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria. What did he have to say about leaving the lion's share of the decision-making with each district?

Superintendent DeMaria said the decision really came down to this: When you have 600 plus districts that really vary when it comes to demographics, geography and how COVID is impacting the population, he says it makes more sense to let each district determine what education model to go forward with and safety protocols that should be put in place during the pandemic. He knows not everyone agrees with that call, but says that's what made most sense from the state perspective.

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