Gov. Mike DeWine: Akron schools not returning to classes by March 1 is 'unacceptable'

Jennifer Pignolet
Akron Beacon Journal
An Akron Public School staff member receives his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine Feb. 6 in Akron.

The Akron Public Schools plan to return students to buildings starting March 15 is "unacceptable," Gov. Mike DeWine said in a hastily called news conference Friday evening. 

DeWine specifically called out Akron, along with Cleveland City Schools and a high school in Cincinnati that intends to stay remote for the full year. Those schools said they would open by March 1 if they received early access to the COVID-19 vaccine, but all have planned at least a later reopening date.  

DeWine said that he would cut off vaccinations for teachers and staff if schools don't return by March 1, because the purpose of making them available to schools personnel was so students could return to in-person. But many Akron teachers have already received the first dose of the vaccine, and the rest who said they want it will receive their first dose Saturday. 

For districts that have already received the vaccine but still are not opening schools by March 1, DeWine said, "We'll have to see what else we can do."

Akron's plan is to return students in kindergarten through second grade and students with significant disabilities by March 15. Everyone else would return March 22. A fully remote option will still be available. About 60% of families said in a recent survey they would opt to come back five days a week, instead of staying remote. 

"Safety is our highest priority and has been the driving factor in our decisions," Board President N.J. Akbar said in a statement Friday night. "The board stands in full support of our district’s phased-in reopening plan and schedule, which began with Remote Plus, our hybrid option, starting Feb. 1st. We were asked to have a hybrid or in-person option by March 1st and we complied with that agreement. Promise kept!"

DeWine, however, has said the definition of a hybrid model is that everyone have access to an in-person option, and Remote Plus is limited to about 2,000 of the district's 21,000 students. 

Akron Superintendent David James has insisted for weeks that it was his understanding the March 1 deadline was flexible. The district, the board and the teacher's union have publicly stated they believed waiting for teachers to receive both doses of the vaccine and time to build immunity following the second shot was the best course. 

James said in a statement Friday night that the Remote Plus plan "is a hybrid model that commenced one month ahead of the governor's schedule. It is our belief that this is in compliance with the commitment made.

"We completely understand the governor's frustration over this situation," James said. "This has always been about the kids, as he said. Akron Public Schools has been working for nearly a year with the sole mission of returning children to school and keeping them and our teachers safe. We have worked closely, and quite well with state and local public health experts."

Akron Education Association President Pat Shipe said the union supports the district's "well thought-out plan," and noted some teachers are already back working in buildings with students through the district's Remote Plus program.

"It is extremely disappointing that rather than support our hard-working teachers and be a part of the solution to these challenges, the governor has chosen to pit citizen against citizen and play politics with the lives of our educators and children," Shipe said.

DeWine said Ohio doesn't have an adequate number of vaccines for schools to access them if they aren't committed to returning to in-person classes. But at the same time, he has not offered any consequences for not abiding by the March 1 deadline, saying it was a matter of "good faith."

He came out much harder Friday, saying schools that were reneging on the deal were breaking promises not just to him, but to their students. 

Having at least the first vaccination shot, he said, should be enough to restart school.

"We know that there's significant immunity granted by the first vaccine," he said.

If Akron were to start school March 1, about 900 of the 3,000 staff members who want the vaccine will have received the second shot. The other 2,100 will receive it around March 5. It takes at least a week after the second shot to build full immunity. 

Cleveland's school district, which like Akron has been remote all year, is expected to announce its return-to-school plan Feb. 19. 

Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati plans to remain virtual until the district accepts a 3-foot social distance as the standard districtwide. 

Ohio is in the middle of vaccinating its 334,000 school teachers and staff as part of DeWine's goal to return students to in-person classes by March 1. School officials signed pledges to skip the line on Ohio's vaccine rollout, which has largely prioritized older Ohioans. 

COVID-19:Ohio reports 3,305 COVID-19 cases, 2,559 deaths on Friday as death reporting backlog is cleared

On Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that schools can safely resume meeting in-person with precautions even if all teachers aren't vaccinated. President Joe Biden has prioritized reopening most schools in the first 100 days of his term.

"These schools are in fact safe inside that classroom," DeWine said. "Parents have a right to make a decision whether to send their children back to school."

Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro said he was "perplexed on several levels" by DeWine's news conference.

"First, it brought me back to my experience as a classroom teacher," DiMauro said. "I never thought it was a good idea to yell at the whole class if I had a problem with one or two kids, and that's what it felt like tonight."

House Minority Leader Emilia Strong Sykes, D-Akron, and Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, put out a joint statement reacting to the governor's "threat."

"In a week where the DeWine administration failed to identify 4,000 COVID related deaths, the Governor takes to the news on a Friday evening to chastise school districts who have suffered under the continued mismanagement of the vaccination distribution process," the statement said. "We all want our kids back in school and our economy booming but we’ve been hindered by the failed leadership from the top that refuses to acknowledge where the real issues are, and instead places the blame on teachers, administrators and parents."

About 4,000 deaths were added to the state's tally this week after a backlog was cleared.

Jessie Balmert of the Cincinnati Enquirer contributed to this report. Contact education reporter Jennifer Pignolet at jpignolet@thebeaconjournal.com, at 330-996-3216 or on Twitter @JenPignolet.

By the numbers

Here is Friday's Ohio Department of Health coronavirus report for the area. 

Ohio: 934,742 reported cases (3,305 new), 48,411 hospitalizations (142 new), 15,136 deaths (2,559 newly added to count, including about 2,500 cases reconciled from undercounted November and December data). The 21-day average is 3,846 for new cases, 185 for hospitalizations and 216 for deaths.

Summit: Level 3 with 38,364 cases (154 new), 3,301 hospitalizations (17 new), 890 deaths (47 newly added to count).

Stark: Level 3 with 28,215 cases (101 new), 1,617 hospitalizations (five new), 719 deaths (181 newly added to count). 

Portage: Level 3 with 10,428 cases (37 new), 567 hospitalizations (two new), 134 deaths (13 newly added to count).

Medina: Level 3 with 12,783 cases (55 new), 612 hospitalizations (two new), 204 deaths (14 newly added to count).

Wayne: Level 3 with 7,651 cases (26 new), 367 hospitalizations (two new), 200 deaths (13 newly added to count).

Note: Level 1 (yellow) = active spread; Level 2 (orange) = increased spread; Level 3 (red) = very high exposure and spread; Level 4 (purple) = severe exposure and spread. Levels are updated on Thursdays. All numbers are cumulative unless noted. New cases and deaths were just reported in the past day and could be many days older.