The Columbia School Board voted to have all its students learn remotely for at least the week of Nov. 30 at its meeting last Wednesday night.
Only board member Lisa Schumacher voted against the change.
The board made this decision, which was a compromise with Monroe County Health Department Administrator John Wagner’s recommendation that the district use remote learning the rest of the year, as spread of the novel coronavirus has forced increasing and nearly untenable numbers of teachers and students to quarantine.
“It’s not what anybody wants. Looking at the numbers, we’re having a hard time staying afloat,” Superintendent Chris Grode said of how the district is handling staffing issues caused by mandatory quarantines when employees test positive for COVID-19 or are in close contact with someone who does. “We’re making it work, but the education is suffering.”
Grode said the district is having its administrators in classrooms or in kitchens, while many of its Response to Intervention instructors are teaching general classes to make in-peron learning possible.
That has led to a negative impact on the district’s education, Grode explained.
He said when the district switches to remote learning, special education students and those at risk of falling behind will still be able to come to school in-person. Those students are not getting that attention now since the RTI teachers are working in traditional classrooms.
Board member Tammy Hines questioned whether going to remote learning would be the most fair choice.
“We’re being asked to sacrifice one set of students for another set of students,” she said.
Board member Greg Meyer agreed that remote learning would cause too many problems.
“I think if we go remote, several kids are going to fall back more than we can handle,” Meyer said, citing conversations with parents.
Grode said that would not be the case.
“The kids who are doing all right now will do all right remotely,” Grode said. “It’s not so much we’re going remote because we’re scared it’s being transmitted here. It’s more like we’re trying to give our teachers a chance to do the jobs that they were hired to do.”
Grode also said it would be better to give parents advance notice rather than having to notify them like for a snow day that school would not take place the next day because the district does not have enough staff to operate.
Wagner reiterated there has been very little definitive transmission of the coronavirus in Monroe County schools, but he cannot say for certain the teachers and children who have gotten it did not get it from school.
It seems more likely, however, these people are contracting it at social gatherings, sporting events or in the community when they do not follow the same precautions like wearing a mask and social distancing that they do in schools.
Grode and Assistant Superintendent Courtney Castelli called for the community to come together to stop that behavior for the sake of children’s education.
“It’s a community problem. We’re doing everything we can to mitigate it,” Grode said. “The numbers keep coming back because we’ve got people going across the river to participate in athletic events or they’re going to visit family and not taking time to quarantine themselves. It’s frustrating.”
“What needs to happen is people need to get their act together so we can have everybody back in,” Castelli added. “Their behavior is impacting not only their child’s education, but everyone else’s.”
Sometime before the projected return to the current hybrid model on Dec. 7, Grode will speak with Wagner and determine whether to continue remote learning or bring students back into school using the current approach.
Wagner said even the one week the board agreed on, while not his recommendation, will help the school and health department not become overwhelmed and possibly determine whether to recommend students returning to in-person learning.
He said most people who do get sick with COVID-19 start showing symptoms five to seven days after exposure, though it can take as long as 14 days for symptoms to appear.
“They definitely need to be out at least for a week after Thanksgiving because of the fear of travel and all that,” Wagner said. “If you bring them back that week, we’re going to be going crazy.”
Board members Schumacher and Meyer expressed doubts that having students learn remotely would help solve the district’s problems, saying they would only spend more time together outside of school not following public health guidelines.
Schumacher specifically cited adolescents gathering at the Turner Hall parking lot on a regular basis while not heeding public health advice.
“That Turner Hall parking lot is a racket every single night,” she said. “Tonight, there were probably a dozen cars, with a big circle of kids not social distancing (and) no face masks.”
“That’s why we’re considering having to go remote,” Castelli countered. “The number of kids that are getting it outside, it’s impacting the number of kids I am having to send home and, not only that, but the staff I have to send home.”
Grode again reminded the board this move is not being recommended to slow transmission but because quarantine requirements are making having enough teachers almost impossible.
Castelli said multiple Columbia students have been forced to quarantine repeatedly because they were close contacts of a person who tested positive for the virus.
Depending on the grade level, those pupils can also force teachers to quarantine, which board member Karen Anderson said was her concern.
“The biggest issue we’re having right now is the staff,” she said. “Maybe the kids aren’t the biggest problem transmitting it, but they’re bringing it in and bringing it to the teachers.”
Hines, who advocated for imploring parents and teachers to change their behavior to allow school to proceed normally, also called for community members to get their substitute teacher’s license and volunteer to fill some of the empty slots.
Regardless of what happens in the near future, Meyer, who has been a proponent of having as many students physically in school as possible, said the planning to return education to its former state is moving along well as of late.
“I want people to know progress is coming,” he said.