Grim predictions of coronavirus ruin for area schools didn’t pan out, but many problems remain

As area schools enter the Thanksgiving holiday week, a look back by some officials reveals a smoother fall than they first anticipated in living with the novel coronavirus but they’re bracing for a rocky road ahead as Ohio enters a statewide curfew and cases continue to spike.

Prior to the start of the 2020-2021 school year, officials from local K-12 districts and Miami University were grimly preparing for worst-case scenarios.

Some districts, like Middletown, Talawanda and New Miami, decided in late August to forgo all live classes for remote learning from home for their students.

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Others, such as Hamilton and Fairfield schools, opened with variations of a hybrid learning schedule that had certain groups of students attending in-person classes on alternative days while others learned from home.

Overall, some school officials said a few of the challenges from the pandemic they anticipated didn’t materialize.

“We made the decision to begin the year in a hybrid model, and we were told that we probably wouldn’t make it two to three weeks because of positive cases,” said Billy Smith, superintendent of the 10,000-student Fairfield Schools.

“That simply didn’t happen. We did have positive cases and continue to have cases. However, it has been extremely rare to see spread that is occurring inside of our buildings. Almost every single one of our cases is not related to another positive case inside the same building. That is a good sign, and that is something we continue to watch very closely,” said Smith, whose district later returned to five-day-a-week, live classes.

One problem now impacting many area districts more than originally anticipated is teacher, school staffer and substitute teacher shortages forcing some districts to scramble with remaining personnel to handle classes.

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Moreover, state requirements tied to coronavirus contact tracing forcing teachers and staffers — including cafeteria workers and bus drivers — who had any proximity to anyone testing positive for coronavirus to stay home for 14 days has played havoc with area schools.

“The strain that the contact tracing has put on our staff has been overwhelming,” said Smith.

The 16,800-student Lakota Schools was among the first in the region during the summer to announce all students and staffers would be required to wear masks.

Later the district, which is the ninth-largest in Ohio, broke from the remote-learning plans of some other area school systems in announcing it would conduct all live classes after the first week of hybrid scheduling when fall classes started.

“We are now 14 weeks into our school year. Our students and staff have risen to the challenge and continue to follow our safety protocols in school,” said Betsy Fuller, spokeswoman for Lakota.

“As one of the first districts to require all students and staff to wear a mask, our data shows that it is working. We want to keep our doors open for in-person learning, but we are watching the number of positive COVID-19 cases and quarantines very carefully,” said Fuller.

And she echoed what some other local school officials said in that the coronavirus itself has proven not to be the biggest problem this fall.

“Our biggest challenges are staff absences and student quarantines, all related to COVID-19,” she said.

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“Our principals and our staff are working hard to cover staff absences when substitutes are not available. On the student side, for every positive case, anyone identified as a close contact must quarantine for 14 days. These individuals are identified based on protocols we must follow from the Butler County General Health District. While that number may be small in the younger grades, that could equate to 20-30 high school students who will miss school through no fault of their own, but based on where they sit in class.”

“While students are able to access their assignments while absent, it is not nearly the same as learning in class,” Fuller said.

Compared to some of the more pessimistic predictions, the fall semester hasn’t faltered in major ways, said Tracey Carson, spokeswoman for Warren County’s Mason Schools.

“Honestly, when we started in-person learning in August, I think most people were betting we wouldn’t stay in school more than two weeks,” said Carson.

“There were a lot of concerns about how students would tolerate wearing masks. That just hasn’t been an issue at all. Our students are terrific about wearing their masks, and we know this measure really works to stop the spread,” she said.

Officials at Miami University, which sharp spikes in the number of students testing positive for coronavirus delayed the start of classes for a time, said they stayed the course of its strategy and have recently been rewarded with a leveling off of the number of students contracting the virus.

Those numbers, however, are again creeping up, mirroring recent spikes among the general population throughout many parts of Ohio.

Still, said Miami officials, some predicted months ago it all would be worse for school.

“This has been a challenging semester to be sure,” said Carole Johnson, spokeswoman for Miami.

“As Miami University nears the conclusion of in-person classes for the semester, we are pleased that our seven-day average of new cases is fewer than a dozen. Our robust testing strategy, our Remain in Room Plan, and our campus community’s adherence to public health standards have allowed us to flatten the curve dramatically,” said Johnson.

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