Bill Seder

Mount Vernon Superintendent Bill Seder speaks during the Jan. 11, 2021 school board meeting.

MOUNT VERNON – Approximately two-thirds of Mount Vernon City Schools’ staff has signed up to receive the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available to K-12 personnel on Feb. 1, Mount Vernon Superintendent Bill Seder said.

The deadline for local superintendents to submit staff vaccine registration lists to Knox Public Health was Friday, Deputy Health Commissioner Zach Green said. At the time, Seder said 350 of Mount Vernon’s 530 employees (which includes those working at the Knox Educational Service Center and all regular substitutes) had signed up to receive the vaccine.

“I think we’re finding our numbers are fairly consistent among the educational community. You’re looking at about that 60 to 65 percent, which is a little higher than what might be the traditional average across all populations,” Seder said.

“I think educators realize their day-to-day interactions and want to do their best to protect themselves, and believe that this is something that they need to be involved with.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced Jan. 7 that school employees would be included in “Phase 1B” of the state’s vaccine distribution plan, which begins this week, when those age 80 and older will be eligible for inoculation. School personnel will become eligible the same week as those age 70 and older. By vaccinating K-12 staff in February, DeWine said the state hopes to have all districts return to in-person or hybrid learning by March 1.

In the days following DeWine’s announcement, local superintendents were charged with asking staff members whether or not they’d like to be vaccinated, then submitting registration lists to KPH. The health department will examine those lists this week, Green said, then create a plan for efficient vaccine distribution once it becomes available the first week of February.

Seder said local school employees will receive the Moderna vaccine, which has been used on hundreds of “Phase 1A” recipients in Knox County so far. The vaccine requires two shots, taken four weeks apart.

Seder called the district’s 65-percent vaccine registration rate “good news” during last Monday’s school board meeting. Like DeWine, he believes vaccinating K-12 staff will allow more districts to safely resume in-person instruction, which could lead to better educational outcomes for students.

“The idea, I think, behind Gov. DeWine including educators in the Phase 1B portion is that education is a critical infrastructure for our society,” Seder said.

“And we need our kids in school – (DeWine’s) goal is to get all kids in school by March 1. Now, we’ve been in school, but there are other districts who are not yet in school, and so if we can get the staff or the employee component of the educational community vaccinated, I think there’s a sense that we’ll have protection so that we can move forward.”

GOING BACK TRADITIONAL: Mount Vernon operated under a hybrid educational model during the first quarter of the school year, but switched to full-time in-person learning heading into the second quarter. The district recently chose to remain in-person for the third quarter as well, which begins Tuesday.

The decision to do so was not easy, Seder said. The district chose to remain nimble heading into winter break, asking students to take home their Chromebooks in case COVID-19 numbers spiked and virtual instruction was needed coming out of the break. But after meeting with local officials in early January, Seder said he felt comfortable making the decision to remain in the traditional model.

“I understand there’s all kinds of opinions on that, and we certainly respect all of those opinions,” Seder said. “But when we got together – not only as superintendents, but with the health department, and in conversations with various groups – we just felt it was better to come back, and our numbers continue to bear that out.”

As of Monday, Mount Vernon City Schools had 11 active student cases and six active staff cases, spread evenly through the district. The district has seen 136 cases total since the school year began, including 82 students and 54 staff members.

Knox County’s caseload has seemingly plateaued in recent weeks, remaining near its highest point since the pandemic began. State numbers reflect a similar trend.

Knox County COVID-19 caseload 1-18

Knox County's COVID-19 caseload, according to data provided by Knox Public Health.

“I know it’s not always the most popular decision, but we’re trying to make the best decision we can based upon the information we have,” Seder said. “If we were all about just trying to project what we think it would be, we would be chasing that for a long time.”

Seder used a football metaphor to describe the district’s approach this school year.

“We keep going for first downs. Every week feels like we’re going for a first down,” he said. “And I hope we can just continue to keep getting first downs and keep our kids in school. But we are also mindful that if we can’t quite get a first down, we will be ready to punt if we have to punt. And we’re gonna be watching the data, continually watching the data, very carefully.”

VIRTUAL NUMBERS FLUCTUATE: Another challenging aspect of the 2020-21 academic year has been managing Mount Vernon’s Digital Academy, the full-time virtual learning option available for all K-12 students.

Enrollment in the Digital Academy has fluctuated as the year has progressed. Parents have been given the option each quarter to re-evaluate whether they want to enroll their students digitally or send them to school in-person for the next nine weeks.

When the school year began, more than 800 students were enrolled in the Digital Academy, making up roughly 20 percent of the district. That number dropped to 540 heading into the second quarter, as Mount Vernon City Schools shifted from the hybrid to traditional learning model.

Seder told the board last week that Digital Academy enrollment had increased once again heading into the third quarter, albeit slightly.

“You’re seeing more elementary students wanting to come back to school, in spite of wherever we are right now (with COVID-19 locally),” Seder said. “However, at the middle school and high school, we saw a little bit of the reverse.”

The Digital Academy’s enrollment increased from 540 to 598 students heading into the third quarter, Seder said. There are currently 182 elementary students, 148 middle school students, and 268 high school students enrolled in the program.

Elementary enrollment in the Digital Academy decreased this quarter, with 27 students choosing to go back to in-person learning and only 13 new students enrolling digitally. Middle school and high school enrollment, meanwhile, increased. MVMS saw 31 new Digital Academy students this quarter, with only six going back to in-person learning; MVHS saw 60 new Digital Academy students, with only 13 leaving the program to go traditional.

This shift will present a challenge for the district when it comes to staffing, Seder said. It will likely need to move teachers around to handle the new enrollment balance.

“We’re ready to take that challenge on,” he said. “I know at the middle school and high school, we have our 6-8 program and we’re really carefully looking at that staffing. We might even find ourselves having to try to find a way to increase some of that.

"Conversely, the challenge we have at the elementary schools is ... when the Digital Academy numbers go down, that means they’re coming back into the school setting, which means our school setting numbers rise.”

Seder called the staffing situation “fluid,” and hinted at the idea that Mount Vernon City Schools might try to phase out the Digital Academy heading into the fourth quarter, pending COVID-19 vaccination progress locally.

“Our hope is, with the vaccine just around the corner, this will be the last time that we really offer an opportunity for people to go into the Digital Academy,” Seder told the board. “We’ll allow people to come back at the end of the third nine weeks, but we’re hoping to kind of begin to (taper) that off now, at this point going forward. Things should be better.”

Support Our Journalism

Our stories will always be free to read, but they aren't free to produce. We need your support. To help our news organization tell Knox County's story every day, join our team. Become a member today.

Staff Reporter

Grant is a 2018 graduate of Ohio Northern University, where he studied journalism and played basketball. He likes coffee, books and minor league baseball. He loves telling stories and has a passion for local news.