Dear Bexley Community,
We hope your family enjoyed the Thanksgiving break, but if you are like us, you may have also felt the weight of the pandemic in your altered gathering this year.
Last Friday night, we wrote to you that the BCS COVID-19 Evaluation Team recommended we go into a “watch week” and today we would share an explanation with accompanying data. Each week going forward, we plan to provide our community with an update of the team’s assessment of the most recent data with regard to the Learning Mode Decision Tool.
1. BCS is in a watch week, which indicates that a move into a different learning mode is imminent (in this case, from hybrid to remote learning) if current trends persist. The evaluation team will meet on Thursday, 12/3/2020. If the data continue to support a move to remote learning, that recommendation will be brought to the Board of Education at a special meeting on Friday, 12/4/2020, at 7:00 p.m. Remote instruction would begin on Monday, 12/7/2020 and continue through Friday, 12/18/2020.
2. The reason for moving into a watch week is that the District is currently observing a large number of illness-related teacher and staff absences. Such absences directly impact our ability to provide consistent, high-quality, in-person learning opportunities.
3. At present, the mitigation strategies implemented by the District are working. Although county and city-level COVID-19 incidence rates are reaching new highs, there remains little evidence of transmission in school during the school day.
The evaluation team is comprised of BCS administrators, board of education members, teachers, nurses, coaches, and community members who are experts in pediatrics and epidemiology. This group created the Learning Mode Decision Tool and later revised it based on community feedback. The team assesses two key factors: 1) the medical/epidemiological data regarding the safety of having students and staff in our buildings; and, 2) our capacity as an institution to engage and educate our students in the current learning mode.
Safety of having students and staff in our buildings
The evaluation team is cognizant of the fact that all data can be read in different ways and nothing is entirely “known” during this stage of the pandemic. That being said, there are many different data sets reviewed by the team when deliberating a health recommendation: the Ohio Public Health Advisory System for Franklin County, the Bexley 2-week rate per 100,000 from CATS, and absences for illness and quarantine for BCS students and staff.
Capacity to engage and educate our students in the current learning mode
The evaluation team also reviews the capacity of our system to meaningfully engage our students in the current learning mode. The team looks at absence data (for both illness and quarantine, for both students and staff), the percentage of staff absences filled by a qualified, approved substitute teacher, and the number of classes covered by a classified aide and by faculty during the plan periods.
The following is a chart of some of the data the evaluation team reviewed last week.
Regional trends and guidance from health authorities
The evaluation team also examines decisions of surrounding districts regarding instructional mode, as well as guidance from Franklin County and Columbus Public Health. Franklin County Public Health (FCPH) recently issued two memoranda with conflicting guidance on instructional mode. On 11/19, FCPH indicated that school districts should consider moving to a fully remote learning mode after Thanksgiving. On 11/20, they published a clarification:
The subsequent email sent November 19 to schools was with the intent to ask they consider additional dialogue regarding remote learning as new cases may increase across our county especially with the upcoming holidays. We know classrooms are safe with 6’ social distancing, wearing masks and other preventative measures our schools are taking.
We also know that faculty, staffing and the number of students in quarantine continue to stretch the capabilities of our schools.
So to answer the question, “what is your recommendation for the learning modality beginning on November 30?” Schools can remain in their current learning modality for the duration of the advisory. Franklin County Public Health also acknowledges schools may make determinations to transition to remote learning based on local data and as operational needs dictate.
In addition to the above data, the team also notes trends district-wide and by building, grade, classroom, and even extracurricular activities. Scientific studies, best practices articles, and recent research are shared. The team is focused on evidence regarding transmission between students in classrooms, or between students and staff. When a COVID-19 case is diagnosed, school personnel interview the case to determine the likely exposure that led to transmission. We also weigh the possibility that exposure happened through other activities outside of school.
To date, we do not have evidence of spread in classrooms. We know that children and adults with COVID-19 have been in classrooms this fall prior to their diagnosis. After investigation, we have not seen evidence of cases being acquired or transmitted in the classroom. Our conclusion so far is that even as cases rise locally, our classrooms have remained safe in hybrid mode due to masks and distancing. We are not alone in this conclusion, other districts which are able to practice masking and distancing have also seen that their classrooms remain safe.
Recommended change in instructional mode
Although current data do not show COVID-19 spread in classrooms, they do indicate a growing inability to cover classes of our professional staff that are absent. Bexley City Schools is a system and as such is subject to stressors, not unlike any other business or home. For example, while confirmed positive COVID cases may be disproportionately lower than other districts, days absent due to illness and/or quarantine may render the learning modality insufficient to meet the needs of students.
For example, a Teacher prepares to instruct half of their class (one cohort) “live,” but must also prepare for asynchronous instruction for the other half of their class (the other cohort), and prepare for those two cohorts to join together on Wednesdays via Zoom. When students from either cohort are quarantined, this requires additional planning.
Add to this, the need for differentiation for students with exceptionalities and in some cases planning for “live-streaming” for children that have specific education plans, and add in “make up” work for those students who have been out and unable to participate in the “live,” asynchronous or synchronous experiences. Teachers are amazing. They’ve done this.
However, when Teachers use their planning periods to cover classes where there are no qualified professionals, the system experiences more than stress; it results in diminishing effects and potentially, efforts. We are at that juncture. Consequently, the evaluation team is sensitive to the fidelity of the system in this hybrid learning mode given the data.
Given those realities, the district’s ability to provide the excellence in teaching and learning that Bexley has enjoyed - and continues to expect - may be compromised. Although the district’s goal is to have all students attend school (whether “all-in” or “hybrid”), that can only be met when in-school staffing levels ensure high-quality facilitation of student learning.
These decisions are never easy for the evaluation team, for the Superintendent, and certainly for the Board of Education. Some of our families will not agree with the analysis of the data, perhaps even the data themselves, or other factors that contribute to the learning mode recommendation. We honor that we can respectfully disagree.
We continue to look at ways we might increase our teacher-student contact time and consistency without diminishing the quality of learning, and without increasing risks to health. We remain especially focused on emotional well-being. Our counselors and Nationwide Children’s Hospital personnel are working with us to support students during COVID.
We will also continue to ask for your patience, grit and grace. As a community, we are all operating in a high-anxiety environment. There is no manual from the CDC or the departments of health that provides thresholds or cut points for how many COVID-19 cases should lead to a change in educational mode, nor how to balance the regional increase in cases against the very real educational, emotional and social costs to many children when they are out of school. As with so many things in 2020, we are making the best decisions we can, using the best data we can find, reaching out to colleagues around the state and the country to share best practices, and consulting experts at each point.
As we transition into December, please continue to do your part. Thank you for practicing social distancing and wearing a mask and washing your hands. Thank you for encouraging others to do the same. And, thank you for your ongoing engagement and encouragement of all who seek to provide the best possible care and teaching of our young Bexley learners.
Dr. Dan Good, Interim Superintendent
Ms. Marlee Snowdon, President, Bexley City Schools Board of Education