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In some cases, school officials blame families in their communities for their changing plans, with graduation and summer evenings peaking in positive COVID-19 cases.
It happened in the Carle Place School District in Long Island, New York, where Superintendent Christine A. Finn announced last Wednesday that the school would begin distance learning rather than face-to-face.
“We have no choice but to put the safety of our staff and students first,” she said in a letter that linked many of the new positive COVID-19 cases in the community to partying which some who tested positive had close contact with students.
“As we learn the hard way, the actions of a few can affect the many,” she said.
Carle Place is not alone. Suburban school districts in Milwaukee and Georgia also saw spikes in student COVID-19 cases, leading to some scrapping or delaying plans to open with some students in classrooms.
Parties are only one reason to switch, as everything from staff shortages to major community outbreaks is forcing some districts to go all-remote.
According to Burbio, a company that consolidates more than 80,000 school calendars nationwide, more than 60% of public school districts should only start the year online. That’s from early August, when 52% of those districts were planning to remotely start, the company said.
A USA TODAY analysis of the 15 largest suburbs also found that nine of those school districts were due to reopen remotely, with some not turning their plans around until July or early August. Some of them plan to gradually reopen the buildings in September and October.
Decisions result in complaints from parents
The changes have drawn the ire of parents in bedroom communities, many of whom are salaried employees and are not shy about voicing criticism of their districts inability to get children back into school buildings.
District leaders have been trying hard to find staff as hundreds of teachers have asked to work from home, stepped down, or took vacation. In some cases, protective equipment was slow to arrive and building preparation took longer than expected.
In New Jersey, some suburbs have switched to virtual launches at the last minute.
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About 100 parents in the Bernards Township School District in upscale Basking Ridge, a suburb of New York City, protested the delay in face-to-face tuition about a week before the district began virtual learning for all students on September 3.
Bernards won’t open classrooms until October 1 and move to a hybrid school model as it takes time to meet state guidelines for giving face-to-face lessons. This includes identifying staff and facility safety, and sourcing protective equipment for teachers in accordance with the district’s reopening plan.
New Jersey’s Freehold Regional High School District had to switch to an online launch Thursday after 250 employees signed up for work from home or requested leave of absence. The district reversed its plans for a personal start about two weeks before school started.
One big problem: Other nearby suburbs had also made a virtual start, leaving freehold teachers in a childcare boom when they wanted to teach in person, said Rebecca Policastro, Freehold’s spokeswoman.
“After our state allowed districts to be removed, it created a ripple effect across the state and unexpected childcare problems,” she said.
Many parents were upset that the district had to drop its plans for a hybrid launch, with the kids spending a few days in class and the others studying at home, district officials said.
The Wyckoff School District in New Jersey announced to parents that they would have to postpone their one-on-one schedule until protective gear and new desks arrive by early September.
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Tough demands on education officials
Balancing the safety of students and teachers with the benefits of returning to school has been challenging for board members and superintendents, said Charlie Wilson, president of the national group that represents school councils.
“Many factors are beyond our control,” he said.
This includes the often conflicting advice from local health authorities.
For example, Wilson is a board member of the Worthington Schools north of Columbus, Ohio. His district and Columbus schools belong to one health department, but other schools in the same county respond to a different health department. One department recommended that schools do sports. the other says it’s unsafe, said Wilson.
“We thought we could take advice from our local health department and that would provide stability,” he said. “But the health department changes its recommendations – often when the trends for positive (COVID-19) tests haven’t changed.”
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Worthington School Board earlier voted to go all-off for the first nine weeks of school beginning Aug. 31 due to rising COVID-19 cases. Then the district got huge setbacks from parents wanting to return to work, Wilson said. The board recently decided to stay away for a shorter period until September 28th before moving to a hybrid classroom format.
“Not everyone was happy with this compromise,” he added.
Without masks and vaccine, we could achieve herd immunity from COVID-19, but deaths would skyrocket. We’re breaking the science of it.
Outside of Milwaukee, the upscale school district of Mequon-Thiensville made at least three changes to its school start-up plans this summer.
First, face-to-face learning was planned, then the district asked parents to explain whether their child should study in person or remotely, and finally announced that it would practically begin on September 1st.
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This is due to the surge in infections in the suburbs, due to a series of large graduations in the community over the summer.
Mequon-Thiensville Superintendent Matthew Joynt encouraged families to take responsibility for slowing the spread of the virus so schools can reopen.
The local health department had recommended that zip codes have an average of 350 cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period prior to classroom opening.
After the infection rate dropped, Mequon-Thiensville switched back to a personal start on September 8 for those who wanted to. About 75% of students planned to come to school in person every day, while the other 25% study at home, according to the district.
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