Navigating reopening public schools during COVID-19 pandemic: A superintendent’s point of view

HD: Navigating reopening public schools during pandemic: A superintendent’s point of view

Schools across the country are slowly starting to welcome students back after transfering to fully remote instruction in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the COVID-19 press briefing on August 8, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine broke down the districts across the state and how they’re approaching the return to the classroom this fall. 

According to DeWine, 325 districts are planning to return to school full-time, encompassing about 590,000 public school students. 55 districts, 398,000 public school students, will be fully remote. 154 districts, approximately 380,000 public school students, will do a hybrid model and 78 districts did not have information on their plans available at the briefing. 

Since welcoming students back, some schools have already returned to remote learning due to COVID-19 outbreaks. From an elementary school in the Mentor Public School District to Ohio State University suspending more than 200 students who violated pandemic precautions, the decision to bring students back to school is proving to be difficult to navigate.

The Ravenna School District reopened September 8, providing students the choice between remote and in person learning. According to the district’s Facebook page, more than 1,200 students chose to return in person, with nearly 800 opting for remote instruction. 

Dennis Honkala. Courtesy of the Ravenna City School District.

Prior to the first day back, Dennis Honkala, superintendent of the Ravenna School District, discussed the district’s plans to return and how he has worked through the pandemic, making decisions for the school district. 

Q: Earlier this year when the pandemic really started to take full effect, can you recall what the experience was like for you as the superintendent to make these decisions that haven’t really been made before?

A: After the initial shock and getting out of denial that it was actually happening and we were going to be forced into this situation, I had to realize it was really my responsibility not only to make a plan — and make a good plan — but also that people were going to be looking to me as to how I reacted. If I was going to be in panic mode, or crisis mode, as a leader sometimes that trickles down. I knew I had to step up. Even though I wasn’t thrilled about this whole thing, like nobody else was either, I knew it was important for me to continue to show a good face and be positive all the way through it. I had a feeling we were in it for the long haul. Even though I’ve always kind of felt the numbers were a little bit inflated and exaggerated, it didn’t change the science which was [this] is a highly contagious flu and it’s devastating to different people that have different preexisting conditions or whatever the case and it wasn’t going to go away soon. 

After getting by all of that and realizing what the task at hand was at that time — it’s one of those things where I’ll never forget it. March 12, 2020, where was I? That’s when Governor DeWine made the call — it was a Thursday — that schools would be closing for students on Monday and Tuesday by 4 p.m. for teachers. We had kind of talked about it, thought about it with regards to technology. Before this time our Chromebooks were one-to-one students, but they couldn’t take them home. In other words, each classroom had a Chromebook cart and each student had a Chromebook assigned, that they used throughout the day.

We had been thinking about it, talking about the possibility for at least a week or so. So we were prepared with our technology crew to distribute those [Chromebooks]. Literally in a matter of 24 hours…we had Friday to prep, which was adequate time. We were able to get everything out by Monday. And then that Tuesday, we used that day for professional development to get the teachers together and their grade levels in their departments and by schools so they could do a little planning and develop several weeks worth of lessons for the students. I encouraged them to plan for the rest of the year. They all gave me a crinkly nose and one eye and said, ‘No, we’ll be back in a couple of weeks.’

I said, ‘Well, just on the off shot that we’re not, please utilize this time to plan all the way out.’ So they did and we made it through with regards to the technology and figuring it out. We’ve been a Google school since 2014, so a lot of our professional development was centered around Google Classroom and the Google platform in general. And we do have a younger staff, we had quite a few retirements since 2013, so I think technology wise, we were prepared for the challenge. But, as we went on through March, April and May [we] just kind of figured out that, yeah, we did OK, but we didn’t do great and we needed to do better. We kind of limped to the finish line and got everyone through and got a nice graduation for everybody and as many senior events as we could.

We went to the Midway drive-in to do graduation, we did a nice senior car parade and thought we had done a pretty nice job hoping that by June, July and August we would come back to normal. I think probably right after July 4, when the number started to increase and spike even more [I] kind of realized this wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. So I met with the teachers and our classified staff and said, ‘Hey, you know, here’s what we’re potentially looking at here. Here’s my suggestion. My suggestion is my ideas. We’ve got to develop a plan here and I need you guys to give me input and work with me through this through the next seven or eight weeks here.’ So by the last week of July I had made the decision that we needed more time for professional development to make our Google platform more rigorous and robust.

I kind of felt like we didn’t introduce a lot of new materials and really didn’t press and push the kids very much in the spring…we really needed to up our game and increase the rigor for the fall. So [we did] community surveys, teacher surveys and those results came back as I thought they would, which was, ‘Thanks for what you did, but you can do better and we need to do better together.’ Nothing overwhelmingly negative, but just a reality of we gotta make it more rigorous.

We’ve had some outside organizations come in and get professional development on the Google platform, Google Classroom in particular, the teachers have been working together for the last two weeks combining lessons, videotaping lessons, working on assessments. I’m kind of excited to see how we do with regards to that. One of the things that I had surveyed the community [on] was how many families and students feel comfortable coming back to the brick and mortar versus remote. I wanted to offer both options. So in the middle of July, [when] consumer confidence was starting to wane a little bit after Memorial Day and July 4, when the numbers started to spike in Ohio, we had about 60% out of the 2,100 [students] that said they wanted to come back brick and mortar and 40% weren’t comfortable, they wanted to do it remotely.

Based on that, we started to do our planning and preparation knowing we will get the final numbers towards the end of August. So we plan[ned] for five weeks or so with those numbers in mind. I didn’t think they would change a whole lot. A couple of weeks ago we pushed out through final forms…it’s a good way to communicate to parents, and every one of the 2100 [students said whether they would] come in brick and mortar or remote. So we broke that down by school and the administrators and secretaries chased down all the kids in each of those schools and got numbers that way they were able to do their class sizes and figure out which kids they’d be teaching remotely and which kids they would end up teaching in person.

We feel pretty good that we’re ready to roll. Who knows what’s going to happen here on Tuesday. My biggest thing is I don’t think that we can’t do this because we’ve got the proper social distancing, the masks are in order and I think we can do everything that we need to do. I think what’s gonna shut us down, and what’s going to shut schools down in general, is we’re not going to be able to staff the buildings. 

The quarantine is really restrictive. So if you’re around somebody within six feet for 10 minutes or more, you’re supposed to report to the health department and then quarantine for 14 days. Well, if I have one or two people per building that happens to, if that happens to teachers and we can’t get substitutes, we can’t double up classes. We can’t put them in large areas because you’re not allowed to put them in congregate settings. So that’s likely what’s going to be shutting us down.

I hope we can beat it. And I hope we can go for a couple months and then people feel more comfortable when they start to send their kids back through the winter so we can get back to a little bit of normalcy, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

[We’re] kind of building the plane as we’re flying it. [I] got a lot of input from a lot of other superintendents. All of our employees have been really cooperative. I’m really proud of them for stepping up to the challenge here. I understand the anxiety with the staff and with the kids and with the parents. We’re just going to have to do the best we can and see where we go from there.

Q: The decisions you make now during the pandemic aren’t easy because you can’t please everyone with every decision you make. But for the people who are upset, like the parents or students, whether they missed something in the spring, didn’t get the senior year they planned on or they’re upset about the condition of school this fall, how do you manage the negativity?

A: In all honesty, it [hasn’t] been too bad. I was a head boys basketball coach at age 25 and I’m 55 now, so I’ve had 30 years of grief. I’ve got pretty thick skin. For the most part, everybody’s been pretty cooperative. The biggest thing is people have either misinformation or they just don’t have the information at all. So getting them that information and getting them the correct information, I’ve really worked hard at doing that. 

It’s a little bit easier now in 2020 because of our social media outlets and the all call phone calls and all of those things. In the spring, I made all calls every Sunday in the late afternoon to kind of get people in tune to that and I got a lot of positive feedback that they appreciated the updates and the consistency. 

I think people are frustrated in general. I hope they’re seeing the schools as kind of the good guys, because we’ve spent over $300,000 in cleaning equipment and sanitizing equipment and additional personnel for cleaning and those types of things. We’re certainly doing our part and [if] people want to fault us for missing a couple of things or not doing things that they think should be done, then I get it. But, we’re doing the best we can.