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Online or in person? How school changed this year, and what to expect this fall

Posted: 5:34 PM, Jul 07, 2020
Updated: 2020-07-07 19:09:58-04
Online learning

CLEVELAND — With roughly six weeks until school starts, local school districts across Ohio are trying to decide if learning will take place online, in school buildings, or a combination of both. The 5 On Your Side Investigators asked school leaders how the experiment with distance learning this spring will inform how schools rebound in the fall.

An Abrupt Transition

On March 13, with very little notice, students packed their backpacks and left school. At the time, there were very few coronavirus cases in Ohio and the disturbance to the school years was called an ‘extended spring break.' But in the days to come, as the numbers of sick grew, in-person schooling was called off.

“It was semi-hectic simply because we stopped on such abrupt notice,” said Nathan Lazich, who will be a senior this fall in the Parma City School District.

Parma student and father
Parma school district student Nathan Lazich and his father

On the fly, schools transitioned from traditional brick and mortar models to online classrooms.

Parents were forced to figure out how to care for children learning at home.

“I think it’s been kind of stressful on everybody especially on working parents,” said Nathan’s father Michael.

Alysia Anderson, whose son will be a third-grader in Parma, said she had to learn how to juggle her own job while monitoring her son’s schooling.

“It was hard working and then doing the school with (my son),” said Anderson.

Local control, with state guidance

Last week, Governor DeWine issued health and safety guidelines that all schools must follow this fall including:

  • Vigilantly assessing symptoms of students and staff
  • Providing hand washing stations
  • Sanitation and deep cleaning of schools
  • Practicing 6 feet of social distancing
  • Mandatory face coverings for school staff and older children

The burden of implementing the requirements have been placed on the local districts, including the most restrictive -- practicing social distancing in the classroom, the lunchroom and on school buses.

To adhere to the social distancing guidelines districts are considering a number of different models, including alternating or splitting weeks between in-person and online school, changing bell schedules or even extending the school calendar.

Akron's Plan

Akron was the first district to unveil its reopening plan which included more of a focus on in-school learning for the youngest children.

Pre-K through second graders would be sent to school every day.

Students in grades three through eight would attend class two days a week and participate in online learning the other three days.

At the high school level, almost all learning would be conducted online.

“Any family who wants their student to remain 100% remote, we’re able to accommodate that,” said Akron’s Chief Academic Officer Ellen McWilliams-Woods.

“Basically two options for families depending on their grade level.”

Lessons of the spring

With a continued emphasis on online learning, the 5 On Your Side Investigators wanted to know how learning from home really worked for students last spring, asking 75 school districts for a breakdown of participation in online learning from March 16 to May 29.

In the spring, Akron reported 84% of students participated in online learning. But when you look deeper at the numbers, about half of the participating students were labeled inconsistent. Roughly 15% of students didn’t participate in any given week.

Elyria said 74% of students earned a passing grade during distance learning.

Barberton reported 80%-85% participated in its online learning.

Some districts like Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, Lorain and Mentor told us they did not track online learning participation.

Beachwood City Schools reported 83.6% of its students actively participated in the first week of April. High schools juniors and seniors got the highest marks.

Beachwood Superintendent Bob Hardis
Beachwood superintendent Dr. Bob Hardis talks to News 5

“A ton of staff members…really stepped up outside their comfort zone,” said Dr. Bob Hardis, the Beachwood City School Superintendent.

District-wide, the login percentage dropped to 78.5% during the first week of May. Eighth graders dropped below 70%.

Beachwood has long been considered affluent and resourceful. But, roughly 1 in 5 students did not actively participate.

“We didn’t know what parents’ schedules would permit them to do in terms of being at home and supporting their kids’ learning,” said Dr. Hardis.

That brings us back to Parma.

“I think our teachers did a phenomenal job learning on the go,” said Parma City School District Superintendent Dr. Charles Smialek.

Parma Superintendent
Parma superintendent Dr. Charles Smialek

He also talked about how the online learning participation rates were not great.

“It was a dramatic fall off,” he told us.

Parma schools reported elementary schools saw 66% of assignments completed. Middle school kids did 51%, and high schoolers completed 35% of their work online.

Dr. Smialek said the silver lining is that the district learned from that last nine weeks of school. Parma asked for feedback from parents like Anderson.

“(My son) doesn’t have the teacher one-on-one connection, doesn’t have his classmates. So, it was kind of difficult,” said Anderson.

“Relationships still matter. That personal interaction as much as you can foster it,” said Dr. Smialek.

Pediatricians recommend

Engagement is one reason why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends students return for in-person classes this fall.

“They emphasize that there are major educational, health and social benefits for keeping most students physically in schools,” said Ohio Governor Mike DeWine during the release of state guidelines for back-to-school classes.

He said “most.” But not all. Now, the plans will get finalized by each school district by the end of the month.

Better this time around

As local districts finalize their plans, families are trying to plan as well.

“Two days in school, three days online puts a lot of stress on the students,” said Nathan.

“It’s not going to be perfect. We’re going to be learning as we go,” said Michael, Nathan’s father.

But with a summer to plan, school leaders hope they will have better outcomes in the fall.

“We will do a better job of it this time around,” said Dr. Hardis.