Cuyahoga Falls, Woodridge schools continue to navigate COVID-19 waters

Majority of Cuyahoga Falls School Board members favor hybrid model, but no final decision made; Woodridge continuing with current plan

Phil Keren April Helms
Kent Weeklies
The Cuyahoga Falls Board of Education is pictured at a meeting in early March. The district will announce the next stage of its return to school plan the week of Sept. 21. Pictured from left are Superintendent Todd Nichols, Treasurer Kristy Stoicoiu, Board President Karen Schofield, Board Vice President Anthony Gomez, and Board members Patrice White, Kathy Moffet and David Martin.

CUYAHOGA FALLS — Despite 19 positive COVID-19 cases in the district as of this week, and following an increase in the county's coronavirus threat level, leaders of the Cuyahoga Falls City Schools are eyeing a move from all-remote to a hybrid model of education at the end of the month.

Meanwhile, Woodridge Local Schools, with zero reported cases as of Sept. 15, is continuing with the hybrid, part in-person, part online program.

Students in both districts returned to classes Aug. 31. All Cuyahoga Falls City School District students are taking classes via the online platform through Sept. 25. Woodridge Local Schools has its younger students in classes full-time and students in sixth grade and above attending two days per week, with the remainder of days spent remote-learning. Students in Woodridge also had the option of taking classes exclusively online.

During the Cuyahoga Falls Board of Education meeting Wednesday night, school board members expressed their opinions on how school should resume Sept. 28, with the majority favoring a hybrid model. However, no final decision was made during the meeting.

Falls Superintendent Todd Nichols said the situation in the schools was "stable," and not a lot of community spread was coming from the schools themselves. He added that Summit County Public Health "wants kids in school."

"That's the word point blank from Donna Skoda [health commissioner]," Nichols said. He added that SCPH also does not want Summit County to rely on the color code rankings from the state.

"Are there cases in schools? Yes, 19 [in Summit County] last week. Will we have cases in school? Yes, we will. Are we prepared for it? Yes we are," Nichols said.

Gov. Mike DeWine recently announced that Summit County moved from Level 2 (orange) to Level 3 (red) in the state's color-coded, four-tier Ohio Public Health Advisory System. At Level 3, residents are asked to limit activities as much as possible, decrease in-person interactions with others, consider necessary travel only and limit attending gatherings of any number. On Thursday, the county was downgraded back to Level

"Nordonia is using the hybrid model, and it is going well," Nichols said. "[Superintendent] Joe Clark is over the moon with how it's going. I'm sensing that if we don't return to school in hybrid format, outside of Akron, we will be the only school where the students aren't in school."

Nichols said that SCPH does want 6 feet of social distancing and spacing "because of the rules about contacts and contact tracing." 

"If they are 6 feet apart, it limits the cases from outbreaks," Nichols said. The hybrid model would allow for the six-foot distancing, he added.

Board member Anthony Gomez said that he supported going back to school under the hybrid system.

"I've said from the beginning that we should go by Summit County Public Health, and if Donna Skoda says go back to school hybrid, then we should," Gomez said. "I'm not a health expert. I am proud we didn't treat our kids like guinea pigs."

Board President Karen Schofield said that she had been keeping track of other districts in Summit County, and said "it's been pretty good, especially with the younger kids." 

"What you say, and what the public health is saying — it’s not spreading in schools," Schofield said. "People are spreading it from the outside, from parties and gatherings. I would be advocating for K through 5 come back every day if we could do social distancing, but we can’t, our buildings aren't big enough. The only way is to do it hybrid."

Board member Patrice White expressed some reservations about students returning, given the lack of available testing and accuracy issues with the tests.

"Even when they are tested, they could get it the next day," White said. "We know some can get it again. We know this is dangerous. We know kids can get sick. We know kids can even die. We know our staff can die. I also understand the frustration of parents when they have to work at home and they have little ones." She added that she understood that the younger students in particular do better with in-person schooling.

"I will stand behind you, whatever is decided," White said.

Board member Kathy Moffet said that "there is no right answer," and asked what the district would do if there was a surge of cases.

Nichols said that whatever decision was reached, he would evaluate how things were going over a four-week period. If cases do increase, the district would go back to all-virtual.

He added that the school board and administration needed to be prepared for parents who might be upset about being told that they child has to stay home for 10 days if they present any symptoms.

"If a child has a fever or stuffy nose, that child will be sent home for 10 days," Nichols said. "Parents might be angry about that, but this is protocol from Summit County Public Health. The school board will get calls, and the members must hold the line. What other districts are experiencing are parents telling their children that under no circumstances are you to go to the nurse's office because you need to stay in school."

Although the county is in a more severe coronavirus risk designation, Woodridge Superintendent Walter Davis said the district will continue with its current plan.

"We are moving forward without change," said Davis. He added the district would have all students take online only classes if the county's designation goes to Level 4 (purple).

Woodridge Local School District Superintendent Walter Davis speaks during a special board of education meeting in August. Although Summit County was recently moved into a higher coronavirus risk designation, Davis said the district will continue with its current plan of younger students attending fully in-person classes and students in grades 6 and older participating in a hybrid format.

Woodridge has posted its dashboard system on its website to provide information on positive COVID-19 cases. To access the dashboard, visit the website at https://www.woodridge.k12.oh.us/, click on "District," then "District Reports and Data," and then "COVID Dashboard."

As of Sept. 15, there were no positive COVID-19 cases listed on the site. The table will provide information on the number of positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff members at each of the district's three buildings.

Davis said if a student tests positive for COVID-19, an email notification will be sent to all district homes.

"We decided this would be the best approach because our district is small and there are siblings at other buildings and/or riding the bus together," stated Davis. "The letter being sent home for notification purposes was developed by Akron Children’s Hospital."

He said more detailed information via an email and/or a phone call will be sent to the families of students who are in the same building as the student who tested positive for COVID-19.

Even though students have not returned to the buildings yet, Nichols said the district is planning to soon have its data dashboard table posted on its website at https://www.cfalls.org/.

Nichols explained the dashboard will include a monthly database listing the number of students and staff members in each of the district's nine buildings who have tested positive for COVID-19 and the amount of students and staff members who are quarantined.

"All COVID-19 communications from our district will be in alignment with the Ohio Department of Health guidelines," stated Nichols.

Both the Cuyahoga Falls and Woodridge school districts, along with Hudson, Kent, Stow and Tallmadge, are all part of the Six District Educational Compact program, in which students can participate in various career technology programs offered at the buildings in the district.

All of the Six District programs are occurring with in-person sessions at the participating high schools, including Cuyahoga Falls High School.

Mary Jane Stanchina, executive director of the Compact, said even though the county is in the red coronavirus risk designation, it will be "business as usual" for the organization's programs.

"The member districts of The Six District Compact work very closely together," added Davis. "Our students come and go between and among schools daily. As such, it would be essential that we communicate positive case data of students in those programs between member schools impacted … we would share that information [with other districts] - as appropriate."

Families were encouraged to watch the website at www.sixdistrict.com for updates.

Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at pkeren@recordpub.com, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.