District preparing to welcome all students back to school for in-person instruction beginning March 8

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Westerville City School District Superintendent Dr. John R. Kellogg on Monday announced the district’s “Together Again Plan” that will return all students to their schools and classrooms just prior to the final quarter of the 2020-21 academic year.

Kellogg prepared the plan at the Board of Education’s request and presented details to members during their regular meeting on February 8, 2021. Under the plan, all students who are not enrolled in the district Westerville Virtual Academy (WVA) will resume attending classes in person on Monday, March 8, 2021.

“The Together Again Plan demonstrates changes in thinking as we’ve all learned more about the safe operations of our schools during this COVID pandemic,” Kellogg explained. “It has been informed by our team of school leaders, various health experts, and reports. The implementation of the plan will require ongoing two-way communication with our staff, school leaders and families.”

Kellogg explained to Board members that schools have proven to be unique as congregate settings in that they have been able to provide in-person learning without becoming places of high transmission.

“It’s a testament to the hard work of everyone to maintain the mitigation standards that we have in place,” Kellogg said. “As we look at this plan, we should all be reminded that this pandemic is not going away without the effort of each of us. We’re all tired, but it is still critical to the larger concern of general community spread that we each do our best.”

The plan has been reviewed by health officials from both the Delaware Public Health District (DPHD) and Franklin County Board of Health. Delaware County Health Commissioner Sheila Hiddleson, RN, MS, joined the Board meeting and informed members that she and her team used a checklist that DPHD developed earlier in the year to review the district’s Together Again Plan. According to Hiddleson, the checklist is based upon the recommendations from the Ohio Department of Health, CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and, because schools are such a community in and of themselves, Restart Ohio guidelines.

“We had the opportunity last week to review the plan according to the checklist and I’m very pleased to tell you that we don’t have any concerns with your plan to have children in school,” Hiddleson said. “Your plan does meet all of those guidance documents that we compare it to in order to have children in your school buildings, so that’s really good news.”

OhioHealth’s Dr. Connie McCoy, DO, also shared in writing important findings from recent studies that apply to the district’s Together Again plan and can help shape the implementation of its various components. She noted that even with a high “R naught,” which is a calculation of the average spreadability of an infectious disease, studies have shown that mitigation strategies work against this novel coronavirus.

“Several studies were reviewed from the fall semester and it was found that when mitigation strategies were followed, exposures from in-school contacts were not associated with increased risk of infections,” McCoy wrote. “The risk of infection was found to be from outside social gatherings where mitigation strategies could not, or were not enforced.”

McCoy added that masks and social distancing significantly reduce the risk of droplet transmission from person to person, and that schools were not found to contribute to the rate of infections in the community.

“The caveat is that proper masking needed to be followed, (and) by following masking protocols there was no increased transmission between students or between students and staff as compared to other positive cases that were not close contacts,” McCoy explained.

Principals over the coming weeks will provide communications to their students and families regarding what a return to “all-in” instruction will look like at their respective schools. Operationally, school hours will remain as they are now. Key dates and events according to the timeline detailed in the plan follow:

  • February 22-26: All students will be on Remote Instruction;

  • March 1-5: Cohort B students receive in-person instruction, Cohort A students receive remote instruction;

  • March 8-26: All non-Westerville Virtual Academy students receive in-person instruction (WVA students have committed to virtual instruction through the second semester);

  • March 29-April 5: Spring Break; and

  • April 6-May 26: All non-WVA students continue in-person instruction through the remainder of the school year.

Kellogg said finally receiving confirmation of which vaccine would be available to educators, as well as the timing of teachers and other school staff members receiving their COVID-19 vaccinations, contributed to the identified return date of March 8. Health and safety measures already in place during Blended Learning will remain in place when all students return to school, including, but not limited to:

  • Students will still be required to wear masks in school as they have been during blended learning,

  • Masks will continue to be required for anyone coming onto school property at all times,

  • Social distancing standards will be applied based upon the latest research and guidance from the CDC and other health organizations,

  • Staff and students will still be provided the opportunity and supplies to wash and sanitize their hands regularly throughout the day, and

  • Schools will continue to follow cleaning and sanitization practices in classrooms, lunchrooms, and other common areas.

Scott Dorne, Assistant Superintendent for Operations, shared with Board members that due to families opting out of transportation services, as well as participation numbers in the WVA this year, the majority of bus routes should still have only one student per seat and, in some cases, empty seats between students.

“When we transition to our all-in model, we anticipate that 71 percent of our 480 runs will still be one student or less per seat,” Dorne explained. “Another 26 of our runs will have one to two students per seat, and just over one percent of our runs are likely to have some instances of three students per seat.” 

Students will still be required to wear masks on the bus, family members will continue to be assigned to sit together, and vehicles will still be cleaned and sanitized regularly between routes.

District leadership team members have appreciated and considered the thoughtful dialogue they have had over the past several weeks with district employees, parents, and others in the community. Kellogg said he and others will begin meeting with faculty representatives, principals, and other staff members to open additional two-way dialogue with staff about the plan’s implementation.

“We will be working with our supplemental support staff, our special education staff, and our district equity team, among others, to make sure that what we’re experiencing, and what they’re seeing and experiencing, is put into the plan so we don’t miss anything,” Kellogg said.

Kellogg said that implementation of the plan is moving forward, but given the work completed to date and details yet to be developed, noted that the district must remain flexible over the coming days and weeks based upon new information and unforeseen variables. For example, district officials will review anticipated new CDC guidelines for opening schools when they are released, consult local health officials, and ensure the Together Again Plan is consistent with new or revised recommendations.

Additional information and a link to the Superintendent’s presentation to the Board of Education can be found online at http://www.wcsoh.org/TogetherAgain.