Ohio Schools Shift to Online Learning Amid Coronavirus

As of Monday, 35 states had closed public schools, according to Education Week. Combined with districts in other states, at least 35.9 million students have been impacted — and that number is expected to grow.

by Alissa Widman Neese, The Columbus Dispatch / March 19, 2020
Alexus Benvenutti, a cook at South High School, hands a lunch of pepperoni pizza, salad, an apple and milk to fifth grader Amata Combs-Fuller, 10, during a grab-and-go meal pickup Monday at the Columbus school. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch] TNS

(TNS) — The lunch hour at South High School was eerily silent Monday.

Cook Alexus Benvenutti was prepared for a flood of hungry families, she said from behind a face mask. She stacked foam containers and sorted plastic-wrapped green apples with gloved hands. The smell of pepperoni pizza wafted through the empty cafeteria, and there were plenty of hand sanitizer dispensers on hand.

After an hour, though, just a few families had trickled in for the free grab-and-go lunches. Columbus City Schools offered them to not only its students affected by schools shutting down Monday to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, but to anyone age 18 or younger.

In total, Columbus City Schools served 837 breakfasts and 1,103 lunches on Monday. Every student in the 50,000-student has the option of receiving those meals each day school is in session.

Benvenutti said she expects demand for the service, which offers free breakfast and lunch for kids at 14 sites across the city, will pick up in the coming days.

And for those who did come Monday, it offered some relief.

Jalissa Stanton, 27, who lives near the South Side school, said she was thankful that amid all of the uncertainty — including restaurants being ordered to shutter dining areas Sunday night — she didn't have to worry about planning what her children would eat for lunch.

"It's crazy, scary," Stanton said. "You really don't know what's going to happen next. Anything helps."

Her smiling 6-year-old daughter, Myrah Dickerson, left with a plastic bag full of lunch containers on each arm.

Starting Tuesday, Gov. Mike DeWine has ordered all schools in Ohio to close through at least April 3. Following the announcement last week, most central Ohio school districts, including Columbus — the state's largest district — chose to close Monday anyway. On Sunday, DeWine said schools could remain closed for the entire spring semester if the virus continues to spread.

As of Monday afternoon, 35 states had closed their public schools, according to an analysis by Education Week. Combined with districts in other states, at least 35.9 million students have been impacted nationwide — and that number is only expected to grow.

The move in Ohio has left a myriad of unanswered questions for educators. Springtime is normally dedicated to high-stakes standardized testing and, for high school seniors, prepping for post-graduation plans.

Now, many school districts are scrambling to transition to online learning as they await further direction from state officials.

They're also setting up lunch-pickup stations, similar to those in Columbus, to ensure students in need don't go hungry.

No standardized state tests will take place during the closure. The Ohio Department of Education is working to adjust the state's testing schedule, according to its website, which continues to update a page of frequently asked questions about the situation.

The department is also asking the U.S. Department of Education for "maximum flexibility" regarding testing.

The ACT and SAT, the standardized tests used for college admissions, have also been impacted.

The ACT, the Iowa-based nonprofit that administers the test, announced its April 4 national test date is moved to June 13. The nonprofit College Board, in New York, which administers the SAT, canceled its May 2 testing date and a March 28 makeup testing date, with no new dates announced. More details on its Advanced Placement program tests in May, which provide students with free college credits during high school, are pending.

The Ohio Department of Education website says many juniors have already completed the state-sponsored ACT or SAT, but the department is "committed to working with vendors to identify additional testing opportunities."

The department expects a limited impact on the minimum number of instructional hours Ohio law requires schools to offer each year — meaning that school extending for weeks into the summer seems unlikely, spokeswoman Mandy Minick said.

The number of state-mandated hours varies for grade levels.

Typically schools schedule more hours than needed to prepare for unexpected closures, though it's unlikely they would schedule enough to cover three weeks.

"The governor and the Ohio Department of Education are committed to working with the Ohio Legislature to seek necessary flexibility to minimize any additional financial burden for schools," its website said.

Though it's not required, many central Ohio school districts are continuing instruction online in the meantime.

Most districts in the suburbs of Columbus are using online platforms, such as Google Classroom or Canvas, through which students are expected to complete assignments from home. For students without access to the internet or computers, some districts are temporarily providing the technology or assignments on paper.

Hilliard, for example, is extending its WiFi into school parking lots, so students can complete assignments from outside their school building.

"It isn't going to be comfortable, and it will not be smooth," Superintendent John Marschhausen said. "I believe Hilliard's educators are better prepared than many university and college professors for (online learning)."

Licking Heights, among others, plans to make intervention specialists available to assist families of students with special needs, and all assignments, whether online or on paper, will be tailored to a child's specific needs, spokeswoman Mallory Sribanditmongkol said.

In Columbus, students will not be required to complete assignments at home, though a variety of online activities has been provided for families on the district's website.

Several factors led to that decision, though a longterm plan, in the event of a longer closure, could look different, spokesman Scott Wortman said.

"Many families may not have online access, not to mention we have a high percentage of vulnerable youth — which includes homelessness, foster care, and temporary living situations — attending our schools," Wortman said.

As they walked to pick up lunches at South High School on Monday, sisters Deaushone Collins, 17, and Destiny Lunsford, 11, said their grandma isn't considering the work optional.They're using her computer to stay on track.

Lunsford said she'll miss gym class at Livingston Elementary School on the South Side, her favorite part of the day.

Their cousin, Amata Combs-Fuller, 10, a fifth grader who attends a public charter school in the city, United Preparatory Academy, said she was sent home with a 100-page packet of work. Her teacher also gave a phone number for her family to call if she needed help.

"I'm trying to make sure I'm ready for sixth grade," she said.

©2020 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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