Around the U.S. and in much of Ohio, school districts are beginning to navigate and make a push toward a transition to in-person learning during the pandemic. However, locally in Logan County, the grades K-12 schools already are ahead of that major curve, offering full-time in-person learning five days a week for the majority of the 2020-21 school year after developing thorough plans with local health officials.
Prior to the start of this school year, much of the summer months of 2020 that followed the state-mandated spring school shutdown were spent in preparation mode for the local districts. Ordering of cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer was a major priority, along with establishing best practices for improving air quality in the buildings and other operational measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Superintendents from Benjamin Logan, Bellefontaine, Indian Lake and Riverside said these plans determining how to get students back to classes safely were discussed during weekly virtual sessions that continue today with the superintendents and Logan County Health Commissioner Dr. Boyd Hoddinott.
“The Logan County Health District has been awesome since the pandemic started,” Riverside Superintendent Scott Mann said. “Dr. Hoddinott was available to us each Thursday during these sessions and still continues to be available to us.
“It’s also been great to compare notes with the other school districts as we navigate these unique challenges and come up with solutions.”
“The Health Department took a ‘common sense’ approach to the pandemic,” Indian Lake Superintendent Rob Underwood said. “It was a collaborative effort with schools from day one.
“Dr. Hoddinott had the goal that education should happen 100 percent in-person, which, I think, was a different perspective from leadership in other nearby counties.
Not only did we begin the school year with in-person education, the Logan County Health District worked with districts to be able to hold special events like athletics and concerts, with additional safety precautions.”
The spring shut down that occurred at short notice for school district staff and families was a difficult time on a variety of levels, and consequently, the local superintendents said the ultimate goal for 2020-21 was to resume in-person instruction if possible.
“In Benjamin Logan’s case, there was widespread sentiment that face-to-face instruction was the most beneficial educational delivery system for the most students,” Superintendent John Scheu said. “If at all possible, we also did not want especially working parents and single parents to be forced to choose between their work or stay home with their elementary age students on remote learning.
“Thus, we have been able to maintain this face-to-face instruction every day of the school year, and also offer as an option for students and families an online learning program called Virtual Learning Academy (VLA).”
Mann also related for his teachers and students, the mental health aspect of being in school surrounded by peers and other support systems was another large impetus for getting back to classes this year.
“The shutdown was hard on our kids and teachers in that regard. Being at home five days a week was tough for their mental health, and we’ve seen a world of difference this year getting to see them into the classroom each and every day.”
During August and early September 2020, Riverside, Indian Lake and Benjamin Logan began the 2020-21 school year in-person five days a week with those safety plans in place, including frequent hand washing, sanitizing cafeteria tables and desks, maintaining a 6 foot distance as much as possible and wearing of face masks both on the bus and at school.
While also utilizing the safety protocol, Logan County’s largest school district by student population — Bellefontaine City Schools — opted to begin the year with a blended instruction approach, with students attending in-person two days per week and completing remote assignments from home three days a week.
After six weeks utilizing the blended approach, BCS began full-time in-person learning five days a week in early October.
“The district made the decision to begin with a blended model so we could see what effects there would be with infections and spread as a result of having so many people in the buildings,” Superintendent Brad Hall said. “At the same time, the district continued to work with the Logan County Health District and focused on CO2 levels, air circulation and air quality.
“When we had classroom CO2 levels approved by the Health Department and we were not seeing a spike in the positivity rates among students and staff in our blended model, we made the decision to return to full in-person learning.
“At the same time the CO2 levels were being monitored, the district installed ionization units in classrooms to add yet another layer of sanitation to our classrooms.”
Dr. Hoddinott has stressed that, “COVID is a disease of crowded indoors with poor air exchange and no masks.” To that end, Arie Pequignot, Logan County Health District sanitarian-in-training, said throughout the school year, he and his fellow environmental health staff have conducted readings with CO2 meters and particulate meters in all of the school buildings in the county to assist with this air quality improvement efforts.
The health district staff also have been invited to a number of other facilities, such as churches, businesses, day cares and doctor’s offices, to help improve air quality as well.
“When looking at air exchanges, we want at least six per hour for bringing in outside air,” Pequignot said. “If we have a higher the CO2 level, that means we’re not getting enough fresh air into a building. Readings of below 1,000 are good, and below 800 are really good for CO2.”
Along those lines, the Logan County superintendents reported their school building have made modifications to HVAC systems to adjust ventilation sequences and provide air filtration and purification improvements.
For the ionization units utilized at BCS, Hall related that this technology provides proactive defense against viruses, mold, odors and other airborne pathogens in the breathing space, rather than relying on the pathogens to be carried through the room and into the ducting system.
Test results show a reduction in coronavirus surrogate by 99 percent in the air, and 80 percent on surfaces after only 10 minutes, Hall said.
In addition at Bellefontaine Intermediate School, 58 new windows were installed at the building so that staff could introduce fresh air into classrooms more easily. Also at each of the BCS buildings, misting machines that fog and sanitize classrooms are used after hours as well.
Hard-working and flexible staff members have made it possible to carry out this new protocol throughout the school year, along with a safety-conscious community, the superintendents related.
“The district is also blessed with a dedicated instructional and support staff who have taken our safety measures seriously from the beginning,” Hall said. “Without their focus on cleanliness and sanitation, we most certainly would have faced additional challenges.”
“Our staff members have gone above and beyond to provide service where needed so that we could continue in-person learning seamlessly,” Underwood said. “In addition, we are pleased that our dedicated pool of substitute teachers continued to report to our classrooms whenever called upon. We were always able to have our classes led by an experienced educator throughout the pandemic.
“Not only did our staff and students respond well to new protocols, our community has been supportive all along. Everyone has worn masks, socially distanced and been understanding about limits on capacity for events.”
With all of the protocol put in place, the school district leaders said their COVID-related cases that have occurred among staff and students at the schools have been manageable, with quarantine and isolation guidelines practiced and students able to complete remote learning while under those precautions.
Underwood also explained a practice implemented by Indian Lake School Nurse Kourtney Thompson that in turn helped to demonstrate that students seldom spread the virus to each other within the school. She creating a shared drive to track student and staff onset of illness/quarantine, a method that was quickly adopted by the Logan County Health District and all other school districts.
“The shared drive allows us to communicate in real time and identify trends that could lead to potential spread of the virus. In fact, this living document has also helped us to realize that students rarely spread the virus to each other in the school setting,” he said.
As the 2020-21 school year enters its remaining months this spring, the school administrators said they are feeling positive regarding recent decrease in local COVID-19 cases and also the vaccinations that have begun. In fact, employees with each of the Logan County school districts are eligible to receive their vaccine this week, if they choose, during specific clinics coordinated with Mary Rutan Hospital.
“Mary Rutan Hospital has also been an outstanding resource. We are so appreciative of the work they have put in recently regarding the vaccination process,” Underwood said.
“They have made the process of getting our staff immunized very easy.”
“With the upcoming vaccinations for those educators choosing to be vaccinated, I feel we are turning the corner and slowly but surely returning to normalcy, and hopefully by next year COVID-19 will not be so overwhelming as it has been dealing with it this year,” Scheu said.
Following the whirlwind of events since the shutdown of Ohio schools during March 2020, the local school district leaders said their field has certainly been in the spotlight. The collaboration between schools, families and local health officials has made it possible to traverse this unique school year.
“There is no question that we have had some challenges throughout the year, but we have truly all been in this together,” Hall said.
“The cooperation among staff, students, and families has enabled us to open and remain open. Without question, Dr. Hoddinott and his staff have been tremendous resources for the district. We have followed their guidance and recommendations to the best of our ability. They have been true partners and one of the key factors for being able to have in-person learning since early October.”
“I would say we surely have a renewed appreciation for what we do as educators,” Underwood said. “Through this experience, our teachers have certainly improved their ability to deliver effective virtual instruction. We continue to increase support for the mental health needs of our students, who have experienced so many challenges through this pandemic.
“We are excited for the day when we can welcome our entire community back to our campus. We truly want everyone to be able to experience victories, successes and accomplishments with our students.”