Fulton County’s seven school districts have unveiled a collaborative plan to bring students back into the classroom in August.
Called the Fulton County Schools’ Common Reopening Agreement, the comprehensive plan relies on practical safety measures and common sense practices to keep students and staff members safe as the coronavirus pandemic rages on. The local agreement was inspired by recommendations set forth in Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s recent release, “Reset & Restart Planning Guide for Schools.”
But the agreement advises: “Each school district will be transparent with all stakeholders that some level of risk will always be present when children and school district employees occupy school district facilities.”
The guidelines, which cover all areas of a student’s school experience, include:
• School district – Each will implement safety protocols and work with the Fulton County Health Department. Students and school personnel are responsible to take their temperatures prior to the school day, and are expected to stay home if their temperature is above 100 degrees Fahrenheit or other symptoms have appeared. Students who contract COVID-19 must self-quarantine for 14 days.
The health department, not the school district, will communicate with parties should an illness be present, and will define what is considered “exposure” to COVID-19.
• Food service – Students will experience traditional meal options but reduced seating. Students will be encouraged to sanitize their hands before and after meals, and the cafeteria will be sanitized between lunch periods. Individual condiment packages will be distributed.
• Classroom occupancy – Individual school buildings will increase the practices of hygiene, cleaning, and safety procedures. Hand sanitizing will be recommended before and after class, and classroom occupancy will be based on individual circumstances.
Parents will be informed that some level of risk is present when their child enters a classroom.
• Face coverings – They will be required for staff members when in close proximity to others, and will be recommended for students. Masks for all may become a requirement should the risk of COVID-19 increase in the community.
• Online learning – It will be offered to students whose parents are uncomfortable with their return to the classroom. Jumping in an out of online learning is not permitted.
• Visitors – They will be discouraged from entering school district facilities during school hours. Visitors will be admitted based on individual circumstances and will follow safety precautions.
• Transportation – Two students per bus seat will be allowed – possibly three if the children are smaller. Siblings will be encouraged to sit together, and seating charts will be recommended. Face coverings will be mandatory for bus drivers when in close proximity to others, and will be recommended and encouraged for students.
Should state regulations require school districts to use alternative schedules, they can adopt minimum requirements for transportation, thus reducing the number of students eligible to ride the school bus.
• Recess – Safety practices will be maintained, including encouraging students to sanitize their hands before and after.
• School day – Students will be prevented from congregating on school grounds before the day begins and after it’s completed.
• Field trips – They will not be held at this time.
Troy Armstrong, Wauseon schools superintendent, said he’s comfortable sending students back to the county’s brick and mortar schools since Fulton County COVID-19 cases are being monitored each day until the first day of school. He said if the coronavirus spikes in the county he’ll work with Fulton County Health Commissioner Kim Cupp to implement extra safety practices.
“Our plan is to have a Plan A, a Plan B, a Plan C, and even a Plan D, if we go that far,” Armstrong said. “We’re going to have options to change at the drop of a hat, if we have to. With the way the Fulton County numbers have been holding, I don’t see it going to the remote situation, but with the fluidity of the COVID numbers it’s very difficult to make predictions.”
Masks will be encouraged for students in grades 3-12, although not required. Armstrong said administrators realize the difficulty of keeping masks on students all day at the lower levels.
However, “We will increase our hand washing reminders, our use of hand sanitizer, and our reminder for our students to remain socially distant. I’ll be honest, it won’t be an easy task,” he said.
“Were going to expect families to monitor student symptoms before they come to school. And we’re going to expect parents to keep sick kids at home.”
One sticking point is the state’s allowance of school football teams to have inter-squad scrimmages. “It’s going to be very difficult to encourage students to do something different in the building than they do in society,” Armstrong said, “but we will make this work.”
He said 77.2% of the school district’s parents approve of their children returning to school. For those uneasy about their children attending, the district offers the Wauseon Virtual Academy.
At Swanton Local Schools, face coverings are required for staff members and strongly encouraged for students. Superintendent Chris Lake emphasized that masks could become mandatory if the community’s coronavirus cases increase.
As for keeping students at six-foot intervals, “There are going to be areas where distancing will present a challenge; for example, the lunch room which will require us to try to spread students out more than we usually do,” Lake said. “As we get into the school year we will continually be assessing our safety measures to make the environment as safe as possible.”
Students will be monitored for their health status, and those not feeling well will visit the school nurse. Any student showing COVID-19 symptoms will be isolated, then picked up by their parents.
The school district’s most recent survey of parents showed half wanted a normal return to school; 15% requested a return with precautions; 15% requested a hybrid option, with students attending only a couple times each week and completing the rest online; and 8% were interested in an online only option. The remainder were undecided.
“In Swanton, the online option is the Swanton Virtual Academy, which will provide a completely online learning experience for students,” Lake said.
In the event a raised community infection rate causes the district to re-close, a remote learning plan will be in place, he said.
Lake said he has no reservations about the joint plan to reopen. “The seven (superintendents) worked together to create it, we had excellent conversations around what would be possible, and we had this plan vetted by our county health director. I believe that this plan is the best option we have to start the school year.”
He added that the low COVID-19 rates in Fulton County should permit the school districts to remain operational for the entire 2020-21 school year.
Included in a list of specific practices in Pike-Delta-York schools are hand sanitizing stations at entryways, in classrooms, and in the cafeterias. Students will be expected to use sanitizer each time they enter and exit a room and when they’re in a cafeteria line. Extra sanitizing will keep high touch areas clean.
Social distancing will be practiced in classrooms, and lunchrooms will be sanitized following each use.
Superintendent Ted Haselman said the school district will do its best to keep social distancing in order throughout each school day. “With that being said, however, school buildings are only so big, as they are not built to have lots of excess room,” he added.
The Panther Virtual Academy is available online for students whose parents don’t want them to attend the district’s buildings. However, parents must agree to have their children participate one semester at a time, and they won’t be issued district learning devices available in classrooms.
Haselman said because the county health department takes the lead on health issues, the school district “will cooperate and communicate…in any way needed to ensure the safety and health concerns of our community.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.