The Athens City School District has plans with the Athens City-County Health Department to vaccinate students and encourage a return to in-person classes in the fall.
Due to the nature of remote learning, the school district has had to adjust to simultaneously teaching in person and online. Since the fall, students in kindergarten through third grade were in class five days a week while students in fourth grade through 12th grade were in class four days a week.
Athens High School Principal Chad Springer said a higher percentage of high school students were staying home when compared to other schools in the district.
“Almost half of our student population is completely online, and the other half is completely full physical or in the building four days a week,” Springer said. “You have the concerns due to COVID and things like that, but for some of our students, and speaking with their families … they're just at this point where it's like, ‘I don't want to make this transition. Let's finish out the year the same way we've been doing it and come back fresh next year.’”
According to House Bill 164, Ohio schools were required to provide a remote learning option for students for the 2020-21 school year. As the year comes to an end, Athens City Schools Superintendent Tom Gibbs plans to return to in-person instruction in the fall.
“Unless the school district really wanted to create an online charter school, options are pretty limited,” Gibbs said. “We do not intend to start an online charter school, a permanent online charter school, so (we’re) working from the presumption that the overwhelming majority of our students will attend in-person next fall.”
Gibbs said the district’s new school buildings will be able to assist in keeping students safe in the fall as well.
“All of the (new) classrooms have windows that open to get more fresh air in the building. Those two buildings have a much improved HVAC system, and that will allow for greater air exchange,” Gibbs said. “The general environment for Pre-K to three will be significantly better than what it's been. Currently, the grades four through 12, we're looking into putting in some purification systems.”
Earlier this year, teachers in the Athens City School District were given the opportunity to get vaccinated. Gibbs said there was a high response rate from teachers, and he believes somewhere between 80% and 90% of teachers have been vaccinated.
Still, there are concerns surrounding the return to in-person instruction, as many students have not been able to receive the vaccine. So far, the Pfizer vaccine is the only option approved for people under the age of 18.
To combat this, the Athens City School District has been working with the Athens City-County Health Department to develop a clinic in the high school.
“We actually sent an email out last evening to all of our families who have students who are likely 16 or older,” Gibbs said. “They can fill out a form and sign a consent form online for us, and then we can give the vaccine at school, and the parent does not have to be present.”
Gibbs said the high school has two school nurses who are approved to administer the vaccine. The school plans to administer the vaccine at the school-based clinic as soon as next week.
There is still no vaccine for students under the age of 16, but Athens City-County Health Commissioner James Gaskell said Pfizer is currently undergoing trials for a vaccine for students aged 12 to 15.
“I would presume that probably 12 to 15 year olds have an immune system which compares favorably to 18 year olds, 20 year olds, 30 year olds, so I would suspect that they will produce antibodies nicely,” Gaskell said. “They may get those trials done by the start of the school year, so the 12 to 15 year olds might be covered … They're talking about having trials soon on 5 to 11 year olds, and those haven't really started.”
Gaskell said herd immunity will be reached at a 70% vaccination rate and believes the county may be able to get up to 40% or 50% in the fall. He also said herd immunity would be a great way to keep children safe as they transition back to in-person instruction.
“I think there's going to be a lot of in-person instruction, and there are those people in the educational system that claim that in-person instruction really is the most effective way to instruct kids, that virtual instruction doesn't work very well,” Gaskell said. “We would have really good herd immunity for the county … and that would help to protect our children if they go back to school.”