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Washington County schools eye reopening plans

Marietta students Lakin Garvin, 9, and Bryson Jackson, 9, work on educational games at the Boys and Girls Club of Washington County Friday. (Photo by Janelle Patterson)

MARIETTA — If Washington County reaches a Level 4 purple designation for the Ohio coronavirus alert system by the Ohio Department of Health, schools would close their doors and fully switch to remote learning.

A joint statement was released by the Marietta-Belpre Health Department, Washington County Health Department, Belpre City School District, Bright Beginnings Preschool, Fort Frye Local School District, Frontier Local School District, Marietta City School District, Ohio Valley Educational Service Center, Warren Local School District, Washington County Career Center and Wolf Creek Local School District Friday.

“The cornerstone to our community is the education that is provided by our local schools. The void created this past spring by the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of all schools was devastating to our students’ educational and emotional growth,” the release opened. “Knowing this, along with other countless reasons, it is our goal as school and public health officials to safely reopen our school buildings and get kids back into the classroom this fall. It will take all of us to help make this goal a reality.”

While the school systems are planning, through parent surveys and collaboration with the health departments, to bring students back onto campuses at the end of August, the statement outlines that if the county does not maintain or lower its risk of community spread of the novel coronavirus, that in-person learning would be the first to change.

Marietta City Schools Superintendent Will Hampton explained Friday that if the county reaches a Level 3 red designation, blends between at-home distance learning and in-person instruction would begin.

“That’s where we would be in a blended mode, that’s probably going to look different for each of the districts,” said Hampton.

Many of the districts have spent the last couple of months purchasing additional tablets and laptop computers for their students to quickly transition when needed to online learning modules taught by their classroom teachers.

“We got everything early because people are struggling to get their things now. I’m happy we took that leap fast,” said Hampton of the MCS one-to-one device program. “We have them on site; they’re being catalogued right now.”

But releasing specific plans for reopening the buildings is contingent upon how residents of the county as a whole behave in the coming weeks.

“The next step in all of this is to iron out the details, how does it function,” Hampton explained. “We have the concepts in mind, but everything seems to be changing so quickly. We could be a red in a day or two.”

Washington County was elevated to a Level 2 orange distinction Thursday, based off of increases in cases not in congregate living settings since mid-June.

Now, as school districts edit plans to reopen their doors, the school districts’ surveys are a key aid in adjustments and predicting compliance with health measures.

“One of the interesting pieces was we asked if your child rode the bus last year would you want your child to ride again?” described Hampton. “Slightly over half said no they would not have their kid on the bus.”

Marietta City Schools’ parent survey closes today and as of Friday had more than 600 responses.

Hampton explained that temperatures will need to be taken at home by families and guardians, but that random temperature checks and assessments will be ongoing in the city school district.

“If we discover one of them with a fever, it may be too late, they’ve already been inside, they’ve probably had breakfast, and it’s here,” he said. “If we have a child we discover has a fever, we take them to a quarantine room and the child will be picked up immediately.”

Dr. Richard Danford, vice president of student life for Marietta College, said the institution is also planning its return of students to campus and how health screenings, quarantine measures and blended learning will be approached.

“We don’t have the capacity to be offering students single rooms to reduce contact,” Danford explained, noting that with strong enrollment numbers none of the dorms on the campus are set aside for the fall either as separate quarantine spaces. “We are working through an arrangement with a local hotel if we need additional housing.”

Danford said students who do test positive for the virus would primarily be sent home to quarantine, unless circumstances or distance make the isolation at home impractical, and that the size of the campus does not necessitate a separate testing site on campus for students and staff from the two offerings already in place in Marietta through Memorial Health System and Walgreens.

“Our protocol instead will be to schedule a telemedicine visit with our staff for an initial assessment; if it’s clear the symptoms are likely COVID-19 then they will refer that student to Memorial’s test site on Pike Street,” Danford said. “If it’s not clear, we can bring them into the wellness center for testing also for mononucleosis, strep throat or the flu, since we already have the capacity to test for those in-house.”

He explained that the preliminary discussions are still continuing on how the campus would respond if Washington County is elevated to a red or purple level as well by the Ohio Department of Health.

“And we’re talking about what’s the number for positive test results of the campus community, what’s the threshold of the campus population of staff and students that would move us to online learning?” he described.

Danford also said students will be encouraged to not leave campus outside of their assigned service learning, required student teaching or school-affiliated athletic activities and that attendance at local restaurants and bars will be discouraged.

The joint statement with the two health departments outlines the criteria for individual school district/center measures for reopening based on the following five principles:

1. Assessing for symptoms.

2. Washing and sanitizing hands.

3. Cleaning and sanitizing classrooms and schools.

4. Proper social distancing.

5. When appropriate, face-covering policies.

“While each district’s reopening plan will be very similar, there may be small differences that reflect their community’s unique needs,” reads the joint statement.

While most of the districts hope to have their plans public in the coming 10-15 days, board approval will still be required for each. Hampton confirmed the MCS plan will be presented on July 27.

Danford said the college will also be in additional consultation with the Marietta-Belpre Health Department next week to begin finalizing plans for reopening campus.

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