Fairfield Local School District closed on Tuesday due to staffing issues related to COVID-19, superintendent Tim Dettwiller stated at the district’s Monday board of education meeting. Middle and high school students will return to classes Wednesday; as of press time, elementary students will return to classes next week.
Students were previously scheduled to be out of school on Friday due to a staff professional day.
Dettwiller told The Times-Gazette Monday evening that a Fairfield teacher tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend, which led to the quarantine of three additional teachers and 40 students.
As of Monday, Fairfield had five confirmed cases involving staff members; 89 students and 10 staff members were in quarantine, according to Dettwiller.
One Fairfield student previously tested positive for Covid, but data that Dettwiller provided at the school board meeting indicated that that student has since recovered.
When Dettwiller told board members that Fairfield Elementary will be closed for the remainder of the week as part of district administrators’ response plan, he stated that the district cannot staff the elementary due to the number of elementary staff members in quarantine.
“The issue is we have an escalating number of students and staff being placed in quarantine,” Dettwiller said at the board meeting. “Our district’s inability to cover those vacancies caused by quarantine — primarily today in the elementary — how do we reverse the escalation and keep schools open? Which is all of our goal: as much education time as we can get. Keeping in mind that, right now, if a child is quarantined, they’re out. They’re 100 percent out because our teachers are still teaching the kids who are here, so there’s not a remote model going on for the kids who are in quarantine.”
Dettwiller told board members that district administrators will assess the number of Covid cases in the middle and high schools and the schools’ staffing abilities on Wednesday. This assessment will include an analysis of any new COVID-19 cases and additional quarantine numbers to “see how it impacts our ability to operate, primarily at the middle school and the high school,” Dettwiller said.
If the schools are unable to operate, they will close due to calamity, which covers closures due to the effects of pandemic and disease, Dettwiller said.
However, Dettwiller stressed that the district is not closing due to high positivity rates.
“We’re closing tomorrow because we can’t get staffed,” Dettwiller said Monday, “and Wednesday, if we see the same issue arising, we would close for Thursday for the same reason.”
Dettwiller continued, “If we close the middle school and high school due to COVID-19 calamity, we would like to move to a blended model for the week of Oct. 26 to Oct. 30, which is next week. One, it allows us to try out our blended model to see if we worked out all the bugs and kinks, to make sure everything works out alright and parents have their child care set up in the event we have to do it again. Number two, it allows us to get more space. Again, I’m trying to mitigate the number of kids who are put out in quarantine.”
Dettwiller added that 32 students will return to school from quarantine on Wednesday, and the district will distribute Chromebooks to those students, who are the only remaining students without Chromebooks as of Monday.
“In the event that we have to move to a blended learning model, that finishes us up,” Dettwiller said. “We have to get them back in here to get those tools in their hands.”
According to Fairfield Local Director of Curriculum and Gifted Services Kesia McCoy, district administrators revised the district’s blended learning model based on parent feedback.
If Fairfield schools move to a blended learning model, students would be divided into two groups, which administrators designated “Group A” and “Group B,” that will attend class in-person on alternating schedules to allow for better social distancing.
Students from the same household would be in the same group.
Group A would attend in-person classes all day on Monday and Tuesday and then complete coursework virtually on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Group B would complete coursework virtually on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and then attend in-person classes all day on Thursday and Friday.
The district would also use Wednesday for teacher planning, updating Google Classroom, and deep-cleaning school buildings.
Under the blended model, students without home internet access would be able to download coursework on the days they attend classes in-person, McCoy said. Students may also access the internet for coursework from the schools’ parking lots.
Dettwiller said the blended learning model helps cut back what he calls the “quarantine net,” which refers to quarantine standards that lead to the quarantine of those who spend more than 15 minutes within six feet of a person diagnosed with COVID-19.
“I told the staff last week: Your mask protects you and the other person you’re with from Covid; the six-foot distancing protects you from the quarantine net,” Dettwiller said.
Dettwiller continued, “Staffing would still be an issue [with the blended model], but the key thing is trying to mitigate future staffing issues. You just reduced the ‘quarantine net’ by allowing six-foot spacing. The one thing I pushed the hardest for this model to begin with was that we wouldn’t get caught in quarantine as much because we know we can separate the kids. Looking down the road, this may not fix next week’s staffing issue, but it will help from that point forward.”
Highland County Health Commissioner Jared Warner, who attended the board meeting to answer board members’ questions, encouraged a “dry-run” of the district’s blended learning model.
“Whatever we see in the community, we expect to see in our schools and in our long-term care,” Warner said. “As we see increases around Highland County and Southwestern Ohio, we’re going to keep having these things pop up. One of the hard jobs ahead of you as a school board is finding the right balance between staying open as much as possible and occasionally deciding, ‘Let’s take a break for a few days. Let’s gather our feet under us again and be in the position to open back up and be better poised for success.’
“One of the things we discussed last week at our superintendents’ meeting was whether this will remain our decision for very long. Late in the school year last year, we had about eight hours’ notice between finding out that the governor was going to close the schools to the schools closing. I think the idea of a dry-run blended model for a week is an excellent idea. One of the big things we worry about, if we go to a blended model or any sort of off-site learning, is finding those kids whose parents are not connecting them to the school system, who don’t have access at home to the things they need. Doing a dry-run lets you find that in a little less stressful circumstance.”
In other news from the Monday Fairfield Local Board of Education meeting:
* Fairfield students are further behind in reading and math after returning for the 2020-21 school year than they have been following normal summer breaks, McCoy told board members.
According to McCoy, K-2 students are experiencing a gap in reading, and K-10 students are experiencing a gap in math.
McCoy said that the district will use more benchmark testing this year to gauge where students are at in order to “try to chip away at that gap.”
* Treasurer Mike Morrow reported that he is in the process of applying for a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) COVID-19 grant that will help reimburse districts for Covid-related costs that the districts did not claim elsewhere.
“I made a pretty lofty list. I’ve been calling it a wish list,” Morrow said. “I’ve applied for about $115,000 — I’m hopeful for at least [$25,000] but might as well try for the max, and if they say no, so be it.”
According to Morrow, this list includes a machine the district uses to clean classrooms, disinfecting items, thermometers, and new cafeteria tables that the district purchased in order to increase students’ ability to social distance.
Board of education vice president Shawn Willey commended Morrow for his diligent work in locating grants.
* Morrow reported that with the latest donations, the Debbie Mangus Scholarship Fund has approximately $3,850.
The scholarship was created in memory of Fairfield guidance counselor Debbie Mangus, who passed away due to adenocarcinoma colon cancer in July at the age of 53.
* Dettwiller recommended that the board ask the board policy review committee to review the handbook policy on “unnaturally colored hair” after a Fairfield Elementary student’s mother submitted a petition.
“Her son is in the fourth grade; he has green hair,” Dettwiller said. “She’s been told, ‘You cannot get it dyed again. If you do, then you will have some ramifications for that because the handbook doesn’t allow it.’ She’s willing to follow that, but she told her son, ‘If you really want something, you go through the process.’ I said, ‘As long as he understands that sometimes the process says no,’ and she does [understand].”
The petition reads: “This is a petition to have the school handbook policy revised, allowing students to have unnaturally colored hair. If you believe that the color of any student’s hair does not affect your student’s capacity to learn and/or are not opposed to this policy being changed, please sign this petition.”
Dettwiller noted that 24 people had signed the petition.
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.