Since it began its school year remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Athens City School District has worked to keep its students safe, fed and properly equipped to learn from home.
Sean Parsons, ACSD school board president, said that throughout a number of school board meetings in July, the district decided to teach remotely until the end of the first quarter, when it will reassess the situation.
“We did give students and families the option to select to be online for the entire year, and we had about 30% of our school district that took that choice,” Parsons said.
He said that the district is following state guidelines for public schools closely, and is also taking into account the measures that the university has taken to stop the spread of the virus.
“I feel that public schools have a role to play in community health,” he said. “We’re trying to be aware of what’s happening in those communities while understanding that one of the biggest impacts on our population density is Ohio University.”
Parsons said that he thinks the number of cases in Athens would be much different today had the university elected to fully open at the end of August.
“There’s really not very many things that are untouched by this (virus) and everybody’s actions play a role in this sort of ecosystem,” he said. “It does impact more than just college students. It impacts everybody in the community that they’re part of, and that really wants them to be here, because it makes Athens so special.”
Tom Gibbs, ACSD superintendent, said the district is paying close attention to OU’s decisions in order to consider the potential for community spread.
“We are also keeping a close eye on other area districts who may be returning to in-person instruction with students to see how that process goes, as well as beginning small pilots of in-person delivery of services so as to test out our protocols and slowly expand our in-person offerings as safely as possible,” Gibbs said in an email.
One of the biggest challenges of remote learning is keeping students safe, fed and properly equipped to learn at home.
Gibbs said that special education and early learning students will be their first priority for in-person classes once students may return to school. As for students learning at home, the district’s biggest concerns also include food and nutrition, safety and technology, Parsons said.
“We’re still working to get food to the kids in our district that need it,” Parsons said. “We have a new food services director that's working really hard to make that happen.”
Parsons said they have used the data from food services to make sure all families have reliable internet as well, including new students who joined the school district this year.
“Our superintendent has driven around areas of the school district that have some known problems with the same hotspots on his devices, trying to figure out what’s working and if he’s not getting access, working on finding other avenues to get those families connected,” Parsons said.
Gibbs said there has been mixed feedback about remote teaching, and that the work is more rigorous compared to what it was like online last spring.
“The biggest challenges continue to be the families where there literally is no internet available, daily access and support for very young students who are not yet strong readers and who have not attended school in the past (Pre-K and Kindergarten), and low-incidence special education students who need greater individual support,” he said in an email.
He said in order to provide internet to local families, the district has contracts with T-Mobile and Verizon.
“However, the reality is, that there are still large geographic areas in Athens County where no high speed internet (wired or wireless) is even available,” Gibbs said in an email.
Gibbs also said he is not necessarily worried about college students putting others at risk, but that it is important to realize that students usually outnumber the amount of permanent residents in Athens and there is opportunity for the virus to spread from one community to the other.
“We do have to be aware of the increased risk that comes with an increased population as college students return to our community,” he said in an email.