Talawanda schools return to remote learning

Talawanda High School and Middle School returned to full remote learning as the district tries to cope with a surge in COVID-19 cases and keep elementary students in their classrooms.

That announcement was made in a Nov. 13 press release in which the district said they are having a hard time staffing the schools with people out for quarantining and isolating. The press release noted Talawanda is experiencing a severe spike in the number of people out due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“All districts in Butler County are experiencing a shortage in substitute teachers, educational assistants and cafeteria workers due to COVID-19. Talawanda has already exhausted the small number of workers (including administrators and members of our curriculum team) that we have available to reassign to assist where we need help the most,” the release read, in part. “Specifically, we have become unable to operate our kitchens at the secondary level this past week due to staff quarantines. Talawanda plans to keep the elementary schools/face-to-face school going as long as we have the staff available to operate them.

Superintendent Ed Theroux expanded on that decision at Monday’s meeting of the board of education saying secondary students are better able to handle remote learning and it was decided to focus on in-person learning for the elementary grades for as long as possible. If COVID-19 cases continue to spike, however, even the elementary face-to-face learning could be day-to-day.

Theroux himself has been among the administrators working to alleviate some of the staffing shortages by working playground and cafeteria duty in the week leading up to the decision.

“We wanted to focus the change to keep the elementaries open as long as possible because they need the most support and in-person learning. Middle school and high school staff have moved into the elementary buildings to help keep elementary buildings open,” Theroux said. He explained those buildings remain open but the spike in COVID-19 cases has resulted in some internal closures. “We have already closed down a classroom and closed down a grade level.”

The plan to return middle school and high school students to remote learning is intended to only last until students return on Jan. 19 but that is contingent on updated information from monitoring the spread of the virus.

Of course, a large factor in that re-entry decision concerns the upcoming holiday season, when people traditionally gather in large groups to celebrate but experts warn that doing so this year will lead to another massive spike in virus cases which could then carry over to that mid-January date.

“We need everyone to recognize we all need to cooperate to keep schools open and to get the virus under control,” Theroux said at the board meeting.

An allied piece of the recent action is a plan to have parents respond to a questionnaire after Thanksgiving asking if they want their child in remote or in-person learning for the second semester. Theroux said he was aware of sentiment in the district to go quarter-by-quarter and save a decision on the fourth quarter for later.

Several callers at the public participation portion of Monday’s meeting expressed those sentiments.

Tomoko Brown said they had opted for remote learning for her son but did not want to commit to remote learning for both the third and fourth quarters because of the possibility of a vaccine becoming available in time for the fourth quarter.

“We may be able to go back (to school) with a vaccine, but the superintendent said (the decision) would be for all the school year,” she said.

Pam Hodgeson, with children at Bogan and Talawanda Middle School, said she wanted to echo Brown’s comments.

“We want the option to switch from remote to face-to-face for the fourth quarter,” she said, adding a lot of families agree about asking for a quarterly decision.

In his remarks later on the agenda, Theroux acknowledged those comments as well as other calls on the same topic made following the announcement of the proposed questionnaire.

“I do not want to promise anything I cannot guarantee. About vaccinations, I’m hearing the general population will not be vaccinated until May or June,” he said. “We know there’s been lots of changes. There are concerns about that. People do not want to make a semester change but we are asking people to make a semester change.”

He praised the staff members who are going above and beyond to help keep elementary schools open and thanked members of the public who have called to volunteer time to help in the school cafeterias or on playgrounds but said rules prevent them from allowing people to just come in and do such duties without being vetted and trained.

They have hired additional staff and have held two walk-in interview sessions offering jobs.

“We are rearranging (educational assistants) and staff on a daily basis. Even with that, we struggled about the middle school and high school,” he said.

The press release summed up the situation with its closing paragraph noting, “We wish we could continue to operate in person in all of our schools, but COVID-19 is making an impact and we have made a decision that we believe is the best one for now, considering the circumstances we find our district in. The health and safety of both our students and staff are among our very highest priorities and are a primary factor in the decisions.”

Theroux advised parents with questions to contact the administrator in the child’s school.

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