North Summit County school superintendents discuss 'dealing with hypotheticals'

District 27 Rep. Casey Weinstein hosts virtual town hall

Eric Marotta
Kent Weeklies
From top left, clockwise, Ohio House District 37 Rep. Casey Weinstein, Hudson City Schools Superintendent Phil Herman, Twinsburg Superintendent Kathryn Powers, and Nordonia Hills Superintendent Joe Clark, discuss return to school plans during a town hall meeting hosted by Weinstein.

Three city school district superintendents described how they have been planning for the fall reopening during a live online discussion Thursday night hosted by Ohio House District 37 Rep. Casey Weinstein.

Hudson’s Phil Herman, Nordonia Hills’s Joe Clark and Twinsburg’s Kathryn Powers explained how school administrators, teachers and support staff adjusted to the closing of school buildings back in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as how the hundreds of school staffers have been preparing for the start of the new school year and how their school districts plan to proceed with education in this unprecedented situation.

After coronavirus cases began spreading across the country and prompted a public health emergency declaration in February, Gov. Mike DeWine issued a stay-at-home order that moved learning online in March — a situation that the superintendents said educators scrambled to deal with.

On the bright side, they said, it taught them a lot about how to facilitate electronic learning. On the other hand, they’ve had to scramble to figure out how to safely reopen buildings.

The superintendents said it was a struggle to figure out how to resume instruction this fall, given often conflicting advice from state and local officials. Most recently, Summit County Public Health recommended county school districts not allow contact sports when schools resume, while the governor said they can proceed.

The superintendents all had high praise for Summit County Public Health Commissioner Donna Skoda, who they said has been working closely with them, meeting weekly with county school superintendents.

Clark said planning for the new school year started on June 3, the day after the last school year ended, by “preparing for hypotheticals.”

“We spent a whole lot of time in having a whole lot of discussions with a whole lot of people trying to brainstorm every possible scenario and coming up with answers to every possible scenario and going back to the drawing board multiple times after getting feedback from staff and our parents and our board,” he said.

All three school districts are restarting class on a hybrid model, where many students will spend some time in class and some time in virtual settings. All three districts also are offering online-only options, with about 30% of Twinsburg students, 22% of Nordonia Hills students and 14% of Hudson students going that route.

Though her school district has the highest percentage of students taking the online-only option, Powers noted a large part of the reopening calculation was the fact that many parents rely on the schools to take care of children during the day so they can work.

Herman said Hudson school staff determined it would not be possible to have all students in class while still maintaining the recommended 6 feet of social distancing in school buildings, so it was forced to go to the hybrid model of instruction.

Clark said coordination with Summit County Public Health allowed the school districts to tailor reopening plans to meet each community’s circumstances and needs.

The new learning environment is also coming with costs, the school officials said.

Powers said Twinsburg will need 10 full-time teachers to meet instructional needs.

Clark said Nordonia has had to buy new desks to replace group-learning tables used in many classrooms, along with the cost of maintaining cafeteria staff. Also reduced spectator capacity at sporting events will cut into the athletic program’s bottom line. 

Herman said Hudson has experienced a $1.5 million decrease in state funding over two years and said staffing costs will also increase.

“We’re talking about custodial staffing and aides,” he explained. “When we divide up lunchrooms and eat over many more areas, we need more supervision for the students. And the same thing, if we’re going to be cleaning high-touch areas during the day, we need to shift custodial staff, and in some cases back-fill second shift for increased cleaning and sanitation in the schools.”

The pandemic costs are also eating into instructional time, and students are still faced with annual state assessments and testing, which were canceled after in-person instruction was called off last year.

“The value of those is questionable, given the circumstances that schools are in today and the wide variety of instruction that is taking place,” said Herman.

Weinstein said he is hoping to address the issue.

“I am co-sponsoring legislation to put a moratorium on testing,” he said.

Another issue concerned the large number of students who will start the year entirely online.

Herman said Hudson is conducting virtual open houses that will include online meetings with all students and teachers prior to the opening of buildings.

Powers said the “soft reopening” of schools the week of Aug. 31 will include opportunities for “virtual students” to visit campus to pick up Chromebooks, textbooks and to meet their teachers.

“The importance of this soft reopening week is to build relationships,” she said. 

Clark said Nordonia is stressing that his district’s 800 online students are “still Nordonia Hills students” who hopefully at some point will be able to attend some school programs in person.

When it comes to sports, the superintendents noted guidance has been conflicting.

While Summit County Public Health recommended in July that the resumption of contact sports be delayed until Oct. 1, DeWine announced Aug. 18 that high school contact sports in the state can move ahead. While Hudson and Nordonia Hills are following the governor’s guidance, Twinsburg is following the county recommendation.

Powers said the district’s position could change following further consultation with the county.

Clark said that the major problem with sporting events is assigning a compliance officer to ensure fans maintain social distancing.

“That’s really the only thing that we’re stressing about,” he said “We’re excited to see the season starting.”

Like Nordonia, Hudson chose to proceed following the governor’s guidance, after having proceeded “with caution” with sports programs during the summer, Herman said.

However, Clark noted there has not been solid guidance regarding sports activities.

“There are so many recommendations from so many different areas that places like Nordonia and Twinsburg that are neighbors can have different interpretations and make different decisions,” said Clark.

The school chiefs all agreed they have missed working directly with the children.

“My message to students would be ‘We really miss you,’” added Clark. “Schools exist for kids and not having been around kids for a long time, it’s hard emotionally, mentally for we adults who work in the buildings to not be able have those folks who we work with so closely with us.”

“We are really, really looking forward to engaging with them again,” said Herman.

To view the roughly hour-long discussion, see https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=713324209515154&ref=watch_permalink.

Eric Marotta can be reached at emarotta@recordpub.com.