Ohio schools overcoming challenges, making the best of coronavirus closures

Ironton High School. Photo from the Ironton City Schools website.

Distance learning and full-time online education have become the new norm for Ohio’s schools as students and teachers adhere to state stay-at-home orders and school closures.

The challenges the schools are as diverse as the creativity has been to keep students engaged, and parents informed.

“Our teachers probably are working as hard if not harder than they were in their classrooms,” said Donald Mook, superintendent of Columbiana Exempted Village School District. 

Columbiana, like other schools across the state, had a little experience with online learning before the governor closed the schools then extended the closure last week. 

Now teachers are using tools like Google Classroom, Zoom meetings, and simple email to keep in touch and keep students on task with what they’d normally do in their classrooms.

“We surveyed our staff as soon as we received word about the closure, and 70% of our teachers were already using Google Classroom to engage with their students,” Superintendent Kim Schubert, of Bellevue City School District, told the Capital Journal.

The same struggles in a traditional classroom setting abound in distance learning, with some students needing extra attention to get work done. Also, some parents are having to balance work and school time throughout the day. 

But the need for all-day broadband access is a unique challenge for schools now, instead of just a need for some to finish homework in the evenings.

Schools like Versailles Exempted Village Local Schools have the opportunity to provide Chromebooks for students in grades 5 through 12, and have provided them to lower grades in light of the closures. 

“We’ve thought about ways we could help out maybe some others with hotspots, and we do provide packets if they need it,” said Aaron Moran, superintendent at Versailles. 

Columbiana Schools and Bellevue have systems in place to provide paper assignments to those without internet connection, according to their superintendent. 

On Mondays at Columbiana, staff puts paper versions of assignments in bins, and the following Thursday, students are allowed to come pick up the work. 

“We have that few days gap so that the virus isn’t being transported, in the same way that when students turn the work back in, there’s a few days before teachers come into contact with it,” Mook said.

Schubert said cabinets have been placed on the back porch of Bellevue’s board office for families to pick up and drop off work. 

Bellevue schools promote the use of limited free internet service from Spectrum in their resources for parents, and give contacts for print materials as part of their distance learning implementations. Bellevue High School’s main student parking lot “remains a local Wi-Fi hotspot,” according to Schubert.

Other districts, like the Ironton City School District, are partnering with local businesses to help students access the internet. A listing on Ironton’s school website has Buffalo Wild Wings, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Spare Time Recreation as locations where students can post or claim assignments on their Wi-Fi, along with the campus buildings.

As for the academic impact of the changing learning environment, the districts aren’t sure what it will be or how to measure it. 

“We’re concerned with that, and that’s why teachers are being very purposeful with what they’re sending to students,” Moran said. 

Schools are used to seeing a summer slump as kids separate from the schools for months at a time, but some are worried it might be more than that, in terms of reading and math levels and overall proficiency.

“We’re going to have to pick up where we left off and fill some gaps,” Mook said. “That’s going to be a several-year climb back to get those kids back on track.”

School work isn’t the only thing on the educators’ minds, as they also spend their time making sure students are fed within their districts. 

Moran talked to the Capital Journal just after helping deliver hot food to students. He said the district brings 160 to 170 meals to kids every day.

Bellevue is providing more than 700 meals weekly to students, according to Schubert, and Ironton schools spend two days a week distributing food made to last the entire week. 

All the schools are concerned about the experience for their high school seniors, and the unknown return date, but for the most part, they’re appreciative of the state response to the pandemic. 

“We know what they’re up against and we appreciate it,” Mook said of the fight to prevent the virus from spreading further. “After all, if we’re not here tomorrow, that doesn’t really help us move forward does it?”