MOUNT VERNON – Faced with the task of figuring out how to educate 3,900 students in the midst of a pandemic, Mount Vernon City Schools rolled out its initial plan for the 2020-21 school year during its school board meeting Monday night.
Superintendent Bill Seder shared the district’s “general assumptions” heading into the coming school year, as well as a traffic-light model that outlined potential options for learning in the fall. Seder announced that Mount Vernon City Schools will be forming a District Restart Committee in the near future, which will focus on developing strategies to create the best possible learning experience for students, despite the evolving circumstances.
“I thought I’d share with you our most current thoughts on where we’re at with the reopening of schools,” Seder said Monday, “realizing that there’s still a lot of information yet to come.”
Seder said he attended a conference call last week in which a representative from the Ohio Department of Education told school administrators from across the state that the ODE would be releasing more specific reopening guidance within the next week.
This ODE representative indicated that individual school districts will have some level of control over their own reopening policies, Seder said, although they will ultimately need to follow state and local health protocols. While school is out for the summer, the coronavirus pandemic continues in Ohio, with hundreds of new cases still being reported every day.
“We believe that guidance will have some mandates in it. We believe it will have recommendations,” Seder said. “But we also believe it’s gonna allow for some local discretion – some decision-making that might take place right here within our school board, within our community, with parental input, with guidance from our local health department.”
The ODE announced initial recommendations for the 2020-21 school year on May 12. Those recommendations included frequent sanitization, social distancing and the use of face masks in the classroom. The 12-page ODE document was seen as the first draft of Ohio's educational reopening plan, which will undoubtedly change over time as more information becomes available about the novel coronavirus.
Ohio students spent the final two months of the 2019-20 school year learning remotely, as Gov. Mike DeWine ordered K-12 schools closed on March 16 to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Ohio was the first state to shutter schools as a result of the pandemic.
Seder emphasized Monday that Mount Vernon City Schools will look to implement as much in-person learning as possible this fall, while also following state and local health guidelines.
“We truly believe that students learn better when they are physically at school, instructed by their teachers with their typical peers. And that will be our goal; we’re going to work towards that goal,” Seder said.
“However, as a district, we must be agile and able to adapt to changing circumstances – they may be changing mandates, they may be changing recommendations. But I want everyone to know that we believe students learn better when they’re physically at schools with their teachers and peers.”
Mount Vernon's first day of school is Aug. 25, and teachers are set to return on Aug. 17.
In Seder’s presentation Monday, he laid out five “general assumptions” the district has heading into the 2020-21 school year.
First, the district assumes it will need to work closely with local and state agencies, “while maintaining some level of local control and input.” The district also assumes it will need to keep the health and safety of its students and staff “at the forefront of all of our decisions,” Seder said.
In addition, Seder said the district will assume its students work best in the regular classroom setting, and it will try to regain this sense of normalcy as quickly as possible. Operationally, the district assumes it “must create structures, schedules and protocols that allow us to be operationally efficient and effective,” Seder said.
Lastly, Seder said mutual respect will be key to a successful return this fall. Each family in the district will have a different perspective, he noted, and it will be vital that people respect and listen to each other during the challenging days ahead. This will be the district's most important assumption, Seder said.
“We will and we must respect the various viewpoints related to COVID-19 and the reopening of schools. We believe it’s imperative that we provide educational options for all students and families," Seder said.
“However we decide to open, whatever directions come down from the governor or the Ohio Department of Education, there are going to be people on varying sides of those issues. We want to be respectful of all of those sides, and we also want to make sure that there’s a place at the table at Mount Vernon City Schools for every student and every parent.”
The three scenarios
From there, Seder outlined the three possible routes for learning this school year using a traffic-light model.
Under the “green light” scenario, Mount Vernon City Schools would be given the go-ahead by state and local officials to resume in-person instruction five days per week.
The school district would need to follow all health guidelines, including social distancing, sanitizing, and symptom monitoring, in order to operate this way. It would also accommodate families who do not wish to send their children to school five days per week, Seder said, so that they could continue learning in a hybrid model.
“We will do everything within our control to ‘go green,’” Seder said. “We want open schools in the fall, as normal as possible.
“We’ve decided we’re going to start from this ‘go’ mark. Instead of starting at ‘caution’ or instead of starting at ‘red,’ we want to start at the top and we want to do everything possible, within all of the safety guidelines and all of the recommendations and mandates, to go green – to get our kids back to school.”
Under the “yellow light” scenario, students would learn in a hybrid model. That might mean two days per week in the classroom and three days learning remotely, Seder said – it depends largely on state and local guidance.
“Hybrid examples are currently being explored and we are awaiting recommendations from (the Ohio Department of Education) and (the Ohio Department of Health),” Seder said. “It is our understanding that we’re gonna get some guidance very, very soon.”
Under the “red-light” scenario, students would learn remotely five days per week, as they did at the end of the previous school year. While Seder said the district “certainly hopes that’s not the case,” he feels teachers and students will be in a better position to succeed under those circumstances this fall, given their experience this spring.
“You know, we learned a great deal from the last two months of school, and if we get the red light, we’ll be better prepared,” Seder said. “We hope we don’t, but we will be better prepared.”
In the coming weeks, Seder said Mount Vernon City Schools will be forming a District Restart Committee to help make decisions related to reopening this fall.
The Ohio Department of Education provided the framework for the committee, Seder said, which will include five branches: Educational, Health and Safety, Communications, Social and Emotional, and Operational.
The Educational branch will have additional sub-committees focused on technology, primary education (K-5) and secondary education (6-12). The Operational branch will have additional sub-committees focused on transportation, food services, and custodial/maintenance work.
“All of these groups will be headed up by directors and administrators of the district,” Seder said. “We will be pulling in stakeholders from within those groups.”
For example, while District Transportation Supervisor Todd Conant might head up the Transportation sub-committee, he will be joined by bus drivers and other transportation workers. Seder said teachers, parents and other community members will make up the different sub-committees. The district may also open up its online Thought Exchange to solicit feedback from the community.
This system will give district leaders a diverse and well-rounded perspective during the decision-making process, Seder said.
“We will be looking for and welcoming some volunteers to be part of one of these focus areas, and one of these sub-committees,” Seder said. “Obviously, you can get committees that are really big. We want to be really fine-tuned and sharpened, but we think we can include all stakeholders that are involved.”
Seder told Knox Pages there will be a "kickoff meeting" Wednesday morning with the lead facilitators of each sub-committee, where those present will discuss how best to proceed. Seder said he will ask each sub-committee leader to "develop their teams with individuals they believe can bring value to the conversation."
The Mount Vernon school board seemed to endorse Seder’s remarks Monday, acknowledging that this is just the beginning of a long but necessary planning process for the district.
“I know people want more meat and potatoes on this plate,” Seder said in conclusion. “And yet just so everybody knows that our focus is trying to do everything we can to get back to as normal as we can, providing things don’t move in a more negative direction. That’s our goal, we want to get our kiddos back in school.”