PEPPER PIKE, Ohio — Seven parents and one educator expressed concerns to the Orange Board of Education Monday (Oct. 26) about the school district’s remote learning plan and said they want their children to return to in-person learning as soon as possible.
But Superintendent Lynn Campbell defended his decision to keep the Orange Schools in a fully remote model next week if Cuyahoga County goes from Level 3 (red) to Level 4 (purple) when the Ohio Public Health Alert System is updated Thursday (Oct. 29).
If the district remains at Level 3, the district will implement its hybrid model starting Nov. 2, Campbell told families in an email Friday (Oct. 23).
Level 4 is the highest risk level on the coronavirus alert system, as it denotes severe exposure and spread.
The board meeting was held in person at the Pepper Pike Learning Center, with face masks and social distancing required. A live audio stream was made available on the district’s website.
Each person who spoke to the board was brought into the meeting one at a time for health and safety reasons.
The Orange Schools have been in a fully remote model since the academic year began Aug. 27.
The district was prepared to bring students back to school buildings via the hybrid model — in which they would attend school daily for half a day and learn remotely at home the rest of the day — on Oct. 19. But Cuyahoga County’s moving into Level 3 status on the alert system Oct. 15 spoiled those plans.
The return to in-person learning was contingent on Cuyahoga County remaining at Level 2 (orange) — where it had been since Aug. 20 — at the end of that week. So Campbell informed families on Oct. 15 that the district had postponed those plans and would remain in a fully remote model.
‘Coronavirus is not going away’
Several parents told the board they believe the district has become too dependent on the color-coded alert system.
“Here we are, for the second time in almost as many weeks, paralyzed to move forward because of the literal interpretation of this guideline by our superintendent and the school board,” a Pepper Pike woman said. “Purple means no go.
“Whether or not we go back to school next week, the thought process must change. Coronavirus is not going away. If we do not have a plan in place for the fall of 2021, where our children are in school full time, there will be catastrophic implications to our district.
“Our children, parents, teachers and schools deserve better than to be strung along by your opinions and personal biases,” the woman told the board. “We need solid leadership from this board around facts and data, not opinions and beliefs.
“Make a plan and be transparent. Otherwise, add my family’s name to the list of attrition for 2021.”
A Moreland Hills man, the parent of a fourth-grader and a preschool student in the district, said the Ohio Public Health Advisory System was never designed to be specifically applied to schools.
“The continued reliance on this system is both irresponsible and negligent,” he said. “I would suggest we move to a system that is more focused on the health and safety of the population we serve, which is the students and staff of the Orange Schools.
“The students and staff who are contracting the virus are contracting it outside the in-person models. The safest place for our children is to be back in the schools.”
A Pepper Pike woman, who has a son in second grade and a daughter in preschool, said, “Science has shown there are other factors to consider besides the county being in the red, not the least of which is our kids’ mental and emotional well-being.
“We have seen the success of other districts that have had kids in person, including Beachwood, Solon and Chagrin Falls,” she said. “Parents should have a choice to keep their kids remote or to do the hybrid model.
“Those who choose the hybrid do so with the understanding that, yes, there is a risk involved. But we are willing to take that risk. You have created an excellent hybrid plan that would (keep everyone involved safe).”
‘Children are falling behind’
An Orange woman, the parent of second- and fifth-grade students in the district, said her children “feel isolated and disconnected.”
“The bottom line is our children are falling behind,” she said. “There are no surveys (to parents) to check if this curriculum is working.
“In order to make our students stop falling behind, it is going to take hard work and planning. If you are not up to the challenge or are not truly invested in helping our children, then maybe you should remove yourself from this board.”
An Orange man who identified himself as “a fellow educator and administrator” said this has been the most difficult year of his career.
“You will find in looking at data, as far as I can tell, zero cases of community spread within a school district in the state of Ohio,” he said. “Where we see community spread is outside of our schools.
“If we want to keep our students safe, we should bring them to school. This district has planned for layers of safety that makes the environment more safe for students in school than they would be anywhere else.”
Board President Beth Wilson-Fish read an email from an Orange woman who said, “We need to get our kids back to school safely.”
“I have a second-grader who is doing about as well as can be expected, but he would do better with in-person learning,” the woman wrote. “(The county) will go purple. It’s not a matter of if, but rather when.
“However, if our community does not show COVID cases, our kids should be in school. The governor has said that the schools are not a source of the virus spreading. You have a safe plan; trust the plan. Please have faith in the community and our kids.”
Campbell explains reasoning
Campbell said while he didn’t disagree with the parents who spoke, he wanted to explain why the district will not implement its hybrid plan if the county moves to Level 4 on Thursday (Oct. 29).
“I told the board last week in parting from the K-12 framework (from the Cuyahoga County Board of Health) I would feel safe that our plan is safe,” he said. “But on a bigger level, and in the spirit of this document that the state created in producing this public health alert system — when it says ‘only leave home for supplies and services’ (when a county reaches Level 4) — I can’t in good conscience ask our bus drivers to come out or ask our teachers to come out and teach.
“I just don’t feel that it is good public policy for me to recommend to the Board of Education to have in-person learning when I look at what it says for Level 4,” Campbell said.
“So while I am a proponent of in-person learning and I know our plan can work, I feel if (the county is) purple this Thursday, we should continue with our full remote status until we are out of that purple state, so we can say with a clear conscience that we adhere to what our state system for public health is saying for us to do.”
Board member Jeffrey Leikin — who said at the board’s work session on Oct. 19 that he wants the district to implement the hybrid learning model as soon as possible — said he believes there’s not a big difference between Level 3 and Level 4 on the alert system.
“The governor (Mike DeWine) has for good reason left it up to each individual school what to do, unless he changes that,” Leikin said. “The thing that just bothers me is the choice aspect. We’re taking the choice away from our parents, and I just don’t think it’s right at this point.”
Leikin noted that he stands by his comment that he made at last week’s work session “that our kids aren’t really learning as well as they should be in virtual learning.” But he added it wasn’t meant to be “any type of comment about our staff, our teachers or our administrators.”
“It’s the nature of the beast, and it’s just not as good as it could be when kids are in the classroom,” he said. “I just wanted to clarify that.”
Wilson-Fish said the board has received many emails on both sides of the issue, both from “families wishing to have students back in in-person learning and families who are very appreciative of the remote learning that is going on.”
“If we go back (to in-person learning), I want to go back for a while for those families that choose that option,” she said. “I do not want us bouncing back and forth.
“I’m very hopeful that (the county) will stay red this week, but I’m not sure that’s the reality. I don’t think there’s anybody here who would say they don’t want our kids back in school.”
Board Vice President Rebecca Boyle said she agrees with much of what the parents who spoke said.
“None of the other schools (currently doing in-person learning) appear to be backing down if we go purple,” she said. “I think we need other metrics (besides the alert system).
“Looking at the (COVID-19) dashboard, there are not many cases in the schools.”
OTA ‘has remained positive’
Campbell said discussions with the Orange Teachers Association are going well.
At the board’s Oct. 19 work session, he said to move forward with the district’s hybrid learning option while the county is still at Level 3, a new memorandum of understanding — including conditions for implementing the hybrid model under Level 3 status — would need to be approved by the OTA.
“The OTA has remained positive,” he said. “They made it clear that they want to be in front of our kids.
“But they also want to do so in a way in a manner in which they feel they have assurances of safety. They know we have the resources (to help ensure a safe return), so we’re working to proceed under a model we can all agree on.
“We’re making good progress, and I hope to have something to share very soon with the Board of Education.”
Read more from the Chagrin Solon Sun.