Coronavirus concerns divide Fairfield school board in return plans

Fairfield Schools leaders publicly showed Thursday the divides brought on by questions about how best to re-open schools under the dangers of the coronavirus.

The board covered issues raised after Superintendent Billy Smith presented a tentative plan on how schooling will proceed in the district when classes start on Aug. 19.

Any plans, Smith emphasized repeatedly during the meeting, may change dramatically once state officials issue their coming guidelines for all Ohio schools.

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Smith said state officials have advised schools throughout the state to be flexible “and be ready to turn on a dime,” said Smith.

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But, if the prevalence of coronavirus cases doesn’t spike beyond recent numbers, then Fairfield school parents are going to have the option of sending their children to schools or choosing to have them learn remotely for the first semester of the 2020-2021 school year.

Students coming to school will be urged but not ordered to wear protective masks, said Smith.

Teachers and school staffers will be required to wear masks. All employees will have their temperatures taken at the beginning of each school day and will have to complete a short health status questionnaire each morning.

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Students riding buses to schools will be asked – but not required – to wear masks while on buses. Drivers will wear masks while operating the bus with student aboard.

Waiting for students at their school buildings will be an unavoidable truth, Smith told the board and the more than 750 viewers watching the meeting on Facebook Live.

“We will make our buildings as safe as possible, but we will have confirmed cases of coronavirus in our school buildings. That is inevitable,” he said.

“And we will continue to be transparent about the level of risk for our students and staff,” said Smith.

Sometime prior to the Aug. 19 start date, parents will be asked to notify Fairfield school officials if they intend to have their children learn from home for the first half of the school year.

If they choose remote learning, they will be locked into that option until the mid-school year point, when they can then return their children to classroom learning if they prefer or continue home learning.

Fairfield Board of Education member Balena Shorter disagreed with the optional student mask strategy and also urged district officials to conduct classroom air quality and air flow assessments during summer break to provide a baseline and highlight rooms needing upgrades.

“There are stagnant (air) classrooms,” Shorter said.

“And it doesn’t make sense to have half the classroom wearing masks and the other half without. We should make that (masks) mandatory,” said Shorter.

Smith said the district is exploring air quality studies and will report to the board soon.

But Board President Michael Berding said “requiring masks (on students) would be very difficult to enforce.”

“And what do we do if a student shows up without a mask?” Berding asked.

Shorter later said in advocating for mandatory mask for all students “I have had people in my family impacted by this disease.”

“I am terrified. I don’t know if we are prepared for what is coming,” she said citing those medical experts predicting a sharp climb in coronavirus cases.

Smith said Fairfield’s board isn’t alone in dealing with the historically unique issues surrounding the coronavirus.

“It’s a very complex issue and it’s not just here. It’s everywhere,” he said.

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