Stow-Munroe Falls' return to five-day learning has mixed survey results
Stow-Munroe Falls kindergarteners through sixth-graders could return to a five-day school week as early as Nov. 30 and seventh-graders through 12th-graders as early as Jan. 4.
The recent unanimous decision came as the board weighed the increasing COVID-19 cases in the county and staff members' discomfort against concerns about academic progress, mental health and parents' wishes.
"No one wants someone to get sick, but there is a point when we have to go back. We can’t live in fear. We just can’t," Board of Education Vice President Lisa Johnson-Bowers said.
Slightly more than half of parents responding to a recent survey by the district said they wanted their children to go back to school in-person five days a week.
But only a quarter of teachers, support staff and administrators are comfortable or very comfortable with moving from the current hybrid model to a traditional school week, according to survey results.
Of the 587 employee respondents, 17.2% are neutral, 24.4% are uncomfortable and 33.4% are very uncomfortable with returning to school five days a week.
"Our staff is incredibly dedicated and they're doing the best they can under difficult circumstances. It's very disheartening because no one went to school to teach this way. It's not what they know. They're trying to learn and cope and it does concern them more for their health. No one's comfortable with it. I don't think that's a term anyone uses," Superintendent Tom Bratten said during a special board meeting.
Bratten did not respond to a request for further comment, nor did the district's two union presidents, Selena Cottrell and Joseph Turner.
High schoolers felt similarly to staff, with 56.3% of 506 respondents preferring the hybrid model and 43.7% preferring five days in school.
In nearly 3,300 survey responses from parents and guardians, a little over half (52%) said they would prefer their student to attend in-person classes five days a week.
However, only 8.7% (about 286) intend to switch to the online option if school returns to five days in-person learning, and 5.7% (about 188 respondents) said they would likely switch from online to in-person if school is five days a week.
School districts throughout the region and nationwide are struggling to find the best ways to keep everyone safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic while meeting the educational needs of all students.
And in Akron, the school board recently voted to continue all-remote learning but with in-person services for struggling students — a decision that prompted an online petition from parents who want their children back in the classrooms.
While voicing their support for five-day, in-person learning, Stow Board President Jason Whitacre and board member Jessica Wright argued that schools are not areas where COVID-19 is being spread, and that district safety protocols have kept students and staff safe.
According to the state's COVID-19 dashboard, the district has only had six student cases and 12 staff cases as of Nov. 5.
The district's dashboard as of Nov. 10 identifies five active student or staff cases and 30 in quarantine. The dashboard does not indicate whether those cases are contracted at school or if those affected are hybrid students or remote students.
With about a quarter of students currently opting for the fully remote option and only half of the in-person students reporting to school on any given day, about 37.5% of the student body are in district buildings each school day.
The board acknowledged in its resolution that the population of students in buildings will double once they return to five days in-person, significantly decreasing the ability to social distance and likely increasing the number of people who will be ordered to quarantine if there is a positive case in the school.
"No one wants to ignore the safety of our staff, but we can look at how we set up classrooms. Even if we can't maintain 6 feet [between students], there's no reason we can't set up 6 feet between the teacher and the students," Wright said.
Whitacre also was concerned that education was suffering for the sake of health, arguing that young students in particular needed more structure than a hybrid schedule provides and that both students and teachers are working harder to achieve less significant results.
Mental health also is being sacrificed, he said, as counselors are seeing students less frequently but are increasingly hearing about mental health issues within families.
"They talk about Mom and Dad fighting, dealing with unemployment and addiction. They're facing twice what they used to and they're not progressing and learning," Whitacre said.
He added that schools are likely more sanitary than homes given their industrial cleaning procedures, but board member Nancy Brown argued that there are also significantly less people in a home than in a school building.
Brown was the only board member to question returning to a five-day school week as Summit County remains at Red Level 3, saying: "These plans were created in July when the number's weren't even close. Things are worse now and if things are worse, why are we looking at changing it? It doesn't make sense."
Brown ultimately voted in favor of the resolution to return to school as early as Nov. 30 for K-6 and Jan. 4 for 7-12.
Bratten will ultimately make the decision as to when to return, taking into account confirmed positive cases of students and staff within the district and within the Six District Educational Compact; the number of quarantined students and staff; substitute availability; case rates for Stow and Munroe Falls; and Summit County's advisory system level.
"This gives us the flexibility to delay if we need to based on the metrics, but that's the target date," Bratten said. "If things held steady and things didn't rise and things didn't fall apart, that's when we'd be going back. Things change around here weekly, and we'll see what it brings when it comes. At least there's a target date, whether it's the 30th or the 4th, and at least there's now a direction and a target."
Families will continue to have the option to decide what educational model works best for their students, and the fully remote option, the Gold Plan, will be available through the end of the 2020-2021.
Parents and guardians have until Nov. 13 to opt into the online-only Gold Plan for the second semester via Final Forms.
Students currently participating in the hybrid Maroon Plan may switch to the Gold Plan before the end of this semester by contacting building principals. Due to staffing restrictions, online-only Gold Plan students may not switch to the Maroon Plan mid-semester.
Bratten said that they are also reaching out to staff members, some of whom are considered high-risk.
"We need to know their intentions. That'll create some changes for us that we'll need to work through," he said.
Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 330-541-9416 or on Twitter @KristaKanoABJ.