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Cincinnati Public Schools juggles safety, grades and millions of dollars in extra costs for fall

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Posted at 12:40 AM, Jun 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-29 10:36:04-04

Cincinnati Public Schools unveiled five potential plans for the 2020-’21 school year on June 22, but board of education president Carolyn Jones acknowledged no one was ready to make a decision at the time.

“My brain right now is like putty,” she said after nearly four hours of public comment, debate and discussion.

After a week, though, the board plans to meet Monday at 3 p.m. to decide on what to do.

The least expensive of the five plans — one that would split students into two groups with alternating in-person attendance to facilitate social distancing — would cost Cincinnati Public Schools an additional $23 million over the course of the school year.

Others could cost significantly more.

Parents and teachers who spoke at the start of the meeting said they needed creativity from the district more than anything else.

“One thing isn’t going to work for everyone,” said parent Lydia Bowers.

Some said their children’s mental health and academics had suffered during the last months of the 2019-’20 school year, when all classes moved online to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“The thing my kids hate the most is not seeing their friends,” said David Brenner, who has four children in CPS. “That’s been weighing on them more than anything during this entire experience.”

Sara Sheets, another parent, said she’d seen straight-A high school students abandon their schoolwork entirely because online learning made it easier for them to disengage.

“I saw kids sleeping the day away, not really engaged in the work,” she said. “The isolation from their friends and in-school community was extremely hard for them.”

Brandi Foster, who teaches at Aiken High School, said she recognized the importance of in-person classes for students but wanted the board to consider teachers’ safety, too.

“I wish we could do five days a week,” she said. “(But) you also think about your teachers. The students go back to school 100% — if the teachers get sick, there’s nobody there to teach them anyway.”

Four of the proposed plans involve blended learning, with up to four days of in-person instruction per week and the remainder online. Only one would bring students to physical classrooms all five days of the academic week.

Having more students in a building at once could improve their social and emotional health as well as their academic performance, board of education members said. The five-day plan would also ensure that parents of younger children had a childcare option every day of the working week.

However, placing more bodies in confined spaces — at only three feet of social distance, rather than the CDC-recommended six feet — would create a greater risk of transmitting COVID-19. School-age children rarely suffer serious complications from the illness but can still easily transmit it to older parents and grandparents.

Plans involving less proximity — six feet of distance, remote learning and potentially relocating many students to other district buildings or outdoors — trended more expensive and would be more complicated to implement.

Many board members expressed a preference for the least expensive option, which would divide students into two alternating groups and allow them to remain in the buildings to which they were already accustomed.

Still, they declined to make a decision.

“We still have lots of considerations,” Jones said. “Lots of things we need to figure out. The plan isn’t definite. It will get there."