Cleveland School Board members support remote learning option for first quarter of school year
by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, August 2020) All the Cleveland Board of Education members weighing in at the July 21st Board of Education meeting spoke in favor of students staying at home and engaging in remote learning for the first quarter (first nine weeks) of the upcoming school year. They also expressed the belief that fall sports are not safe to engage in and should be shut down. The same would apply to extracurricular activities that couldn’t be engaged in remotely. Students in year-round schools are expected to have a start date of August 24th. Students in traditional schools are expected to start on September 8th.
Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Eric Gordon presented the Board of Education with a number of options for the new school year – a hybrid model and a completely remote learning model. The hybrid model involved some students coming to school four days a week and others learning remotely from home. Gordon described various safety precautions the schools would undertake if this model were accepted by the Board of Education.
Board members present at the remote meeting all weighed in on the decision, starting with Board President Anne Bingham. “Cuyahoga County is still at level red, with the number of new cases continuing to rise. It is unwise to bring everyone into school. It is not safe right now. Not safe for students, families and staff,” she said. Bingham then offered her support for starting the school year completely remote as the safest way to go.
In making his decision, Board Member Robert Heard said he weighed health considerations with academic considerations. He said, “Everyone’s health is more important.” As far as sports, he said the short answer is “No.” Heard said there is some concern on the part of parents and students about students losing out on potential athletic scholarships. However, he noted we have “Say Yes” money for those students. Heard said, “I cannot live with the idea of me supporting opening of schools and hearing down the road of family members in the hospital, kids in the hospital…” Heard said, “Going remote is the way to go right now.” Heard said, what he is hearing in the community is “We are ready to go, but let’s stay home.”
In her remarks, Board Member Sara Elaqad spoke directly to the community. She praised community members that are doing everything they can to stop the coronavirus, COVID-19, from spreading. She also had words for community members not wearing masks and not doing what they can to stop the spread of the virus. She said they are the ones that are forcing the decision to have students stay at home and learn remotely. She said their actions make it hard on families that don’t have the option to work at home and families that rely on schools for childcare so they can go to work. She said she was disappointed to see a recent report that Ohio was one of the least compliant states for mask wearing. “I’m disappointed because it makes it so our students can’t go back to school,” said Elaqad.
Elaqad said, “We are in a pandemic. It is time to stay home. I’d hate to be in a position of our students’ getting sick. I hate to say it, or our students dying… It’s heartbreaking. I want to see our students go back to school, but health is number one.”
Elaqad voted for going remotely for the first quarter, but she said she would like to see clearer expectations of how many times teachers check in with students. She said teachers “need to keep track of what is going on with students and families and be more involved in their lives.” Elaqad also called upon the school system to educate students and families about COVID-19. She said that given the right information, “I have faith kids will do the right thing.”
Board member Jasmine Fryer said the school system has worked hard to create a high quality educational and extracurricular environment and limiting access to that creates challenges. Under ideal circumstances she would like students to be back in classrooms. However, she asked the question: “Can we ensure health and safety at the start of the school year?” Her answer was “no” and that “it is unethical to go back to school at this time.” Fryer noted that the Surgeon General has said schools shouldn’t open until the risk is lower. She also cited the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s own surveys of parents and teachers in which the majority of respondents in both surveys preferred not to go back to school at this time.
Fryer also noted that many families in Cleveland may not have access to health care and thus children and family members may not know if they have pre-existing conditions that make them more vulnerable to dying from coronavirus, COVID-19. Fryer said, “We should not allow ourselves to be pressured by anybody — including the federal government threating to withdraw funds– to make decisions not in the best interests of our students.”
Board Member Willetta Milam said she has heard from grandparents raising their grandchildren. They told her that they would not be sending their students back to school if it means going in person.
Board Member Lisa Thomas said, “We should not allow any child to go into our schools until the Board of Education meets in person.” She also quoted Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci concerning the prospect of students returning to school in the fall, saying Fauci said, “it is something of a bridge too far.”
Board Member Kathleen Valdez said her daughter is anxious to go back to school and see her friends and “there is nothing more I want but for her to be able to go.” Valdez says she asks herself, “Will everyone else be following guidelines to protect her?” She said, it is not the ideal situation to be going back to school now. Valdez expressed concern about parents that have to lose their jobs so they can stay home with their children. She asked about what systems are in place to support parents. She asked about internet access and making sure every child has a device in their home.
CEO Eric Gordon said that last year the district distributed 16,000 devices with the goal of having at least one device in each of the district’s roughly 27,000 households. The district also put in place 9,800 internet hotspots to help families access the internet. However, he said the goal is for each student to have a device, as now family members may be sharing one device, and a parent may need that device for work. Gordon expressed confidence that the school district will have a much more thoughtful plan for remote learning than was the case last year when the schools were suddenly closed due to the emergence of the corona virus COVID-19. He said the district has purchased new software and technology and is partnering with both local and national organizations to assist in the remote educational experience of Cleveland’s children.
Other concerns raised by Board Members included remote teaching for students in specialty classes such as dance; how the district would address the education of special needs students with Individual Education Plans that may require a more “hands on” approach; how the district would handle food distribution; and the district’s plan to meet the needs of homeless students.
CEO Gordon responded that it is possible to teach specialty classes remotely. He noted that the CMSD’s Project ACT staff keeps in touch with homeless families and provides them with resources. He also said there has been a lot of discussion among staff and district advisory groups about how to address the education of special needs students.
Gordon said a decision has not yet been made on food distribution – whether the district would continue with the summer distribution sites or offer food distribution at each individual school. He said the district has ordered prepackaged meals that can last five days so parents can pick up a week’s supply of food on one trip.
Board member Sara Elaqad noted how much more we are asking from the school staff without additional funding. She urged voters to support the school district’s levy request. She spoke of the “tremendously high burden put on schools,” and decried the lack of state and federal funds to help with the additional resources that are needed to address the needs of the school district.
Other board members urged citizens to write to United States Senator Rob Portman to urge his support for federal legislation that would provide funds for local schools.