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CPS Board moves to keep Walnut Hills High School virtual for now

Parents questioned if district's plan is safe
Parents protest CPS
Posted at 11:14 PM, Feb 08, 2021

CINCINNATI — The Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education approved a measure Monday to reconsider bringing Walnut Hills High School students back to classrooms next week.

Board member Mike Moroski's motion to keep Walnut Hills High School virtual "until the district elects to accept three-feet social distance as the standard" was approved 5-2 Monday night.

Walnut Hills High School students had been scheduled to return to the school building after nearly a year of remote learning. Walnut Hills was to migrate out of distance learning and follow an A/B blended-learning schedule.

"On any given day, we’re talking about bringing back 1,400 kids. I think the safest way to do that is a phased-in approach," said Superintendent Laura Mitchell at the board meeting.

Before Monday night's vote, the district's plan would have kept students three feet apart in classrooms, though the CDC recommends safe social distancing of six feet. CPS officials said that decision is due to overcrowding and classroom sizes at Walnut Hills.

Board member Ryan Messer expressed concern that students and teachers may not be safe at that distance. During the virtual meeting, board members sat six feet apart.

“I put myself in the shoes of a staff member, not getting six feet, not fully vaccinated. I think it’s worth us reconsidering,” Messer said.

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Parents protest outside of a Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education meeting to address a return to blended learning plan for Walnut Hills High School, Feb. 8, 2021.

The big question on CPS parents’ minds: Is three feet enough?

Kristen Heinlen, who has three sons at Walnut Hills, shared her concerns about returning students to classrooms at a protest of more than 120 parents outside the board meeting Monday evening.

“It’s frustrating that the board isn’t taking a good solid look at Walnut and admitting that it’s not safe for our students to return at this time,” she said.

Mieke Clincy, another Walnut Hills parent, said he is concerned that overcrowding at the school could lead to students in close quarters. Many others agreed during Monday night's public hearing.

“Kids being afraid of bumping into each other. The hallways at Walnut Hills are called the ‘mosh pit.’ The situation is unworkable even at half the capacity," Clincy said.

Attorney Richard Ganulin, representing more than 100 parents of the school, filed a Freedom of Information Act request which shows an email from Superintendent Laura Mitchell saying that the need for teachers and staff to receive the COVID-19 vaccine early is contingent upon returning to in-person or blended learning by March 1 -- including Walnut Hills High School.

“The Cincinnati Health Department has not been involved in discussions with Walnut Hills High School about the reopening,” Ganulin said during the board meeting Monday.

CPS staff started receiving COVID-19 vaccines at the end of January. Vaccinations for high school teachers began last weekend, and those teachers would be fully vaccinated with a second dose around the beginning of March, district officials said.

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Parents call for Walnut Hills High School to remain in remote learning as CPS addresses its proposal to bring students back to classrooms.

Heinlen said that the March 1 return date should be pushed back.

"It’s not even a date that’s suitable for the students -- it’s basically right in the middle of a quarter," she said. "Ideally, if the school board takes a step back and says what’s a good time for the kids to go back when it’s safer, when vaccines are moving further for families. We were saying possibly the fourth quarter.”

Cincinnati Public Schools began phasing students in other schools back into a blended-learning model earlier this month.