To close or not to close? COVID-19 creates no-win scenario for Ohio, Kentucky schools

Posted at 6:36 PM, Nov 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-13 18:36:48-05

The rapid spread of COVID-19 throughout Ohio and Kentucky, which both reported all-time high numbers of new cases on Friday, has forced some districts to discontinue in-person classes until 2021.

But Mason City Schools is staying the course, despite the fact it sits inside the “overwhelmed” Warren County Health District. Students in the school district can still choose to attend in-person classes for five days every week.

Asked why his district has continued to offer in-person classes, superintendent Jonathan Cooper said they’ve stayed open because schools themselves are not major sites for viral transmission.

“The data is actually showing that inside our schools, as long as we are following that safety bundle, then we have every confidence to say that there is a safe environment for our students,” he said.

This is true — it’s a talking point that’s been echoed by Gov. Mike DeWine during his biweekly news conferences and by officials in other school districts, including some that have temporarily shut down in-person instruction. Controlled environments where social distancing, mask-wearing and frequent hand-washing are enforced provide few opportunities for the virus to spread.

“But schools exist within a community,” said Janice Wilkerson, assistant superintendent of Covington Independent Schools. “When there is increased community spread, then there is an increased impact on schools, including staffing.”

Wilkerson’s district announced Friday it would stay remote through the end of 2020. The problem, she said, isn’t the risk of people becoming sick at school. It’s that no one is safe in a community where the virus is so prevalent.

Increasing numbers of teachers and staff members are missing class due to illness or quarantining after COVID-19 exposure in their daily lives. Substitutes are scarce. In Cincinnati, the shortfall has been so severe that the school board decided to shut down all in-person classes from Nov. 23 until January.

Cooper said he knows his district’s continued offering of in-person classes depends on people who will never attend them.

“In order for us to keep our schools open, which is what our desire is, people must take personal responsibility outside,” he said.

Mason City Schools is bumping substitutes’ daily pay from $85 to $125 in an attempt to dodge the mass staffing shortages that have plagued other districts.

In Covington, Wilkerson entreated community members to think of others before they disregard masking and distancing instructions.

“Everybody needs to do their part,” she said. “Whether they are in a school, in a business, going to the store, going to their faith community to worship, everybody needs to do their part for the benefit of all of us.”