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Staff And Bus Driver Shortages Will Keep CCS From Reopening By March 1

Alison Holm

At Tuesday's coronavirus press conference Ohio Governor Mike DeWine called out several school districts including Columbus City Schools, that aren't on track to have all students back in school at least part time by March 1rst.  At Tuesday evening's school board meeting officials say there's solid and systemic reasons why that won't happen.  Alison Holm has more.   

After an hours long meeting about the problems the district has encountered on the path to reopening, and thanking partners like Columbus Public Health, the Mayor's office, COTA and Smart Columbus,   Columbus City Schools board President Jennifer Adair fired back at the Governor.

"It's pretty sad though, that our state government doesn't want to be a partner. And instead wants to chastise, and blame, and hold hostage in some ways, local school districts when they're just trying to do the best they can.  And it's also unfortunate that it's the large, urban, economically challenged districts that are being targeted in this situation."

Columbus announced in early January that they would begin moving to hybrid learning by February 1, but making that happen has been difficult.  So far, career and technical students, students with complex needs, and K-5 students have begun returning to schools.  But three schools returned to remote learning last week because of staff shortages, and more may move back this week.  And there is still no date for middle and high school students to return because of transportation issues.

Transportation director Steve McElroy says the district has 596 active bus drivers and 77 intervention aides, running 531 bus routes.  Pre-COVID the district had 765 drivers for 700 routes.  McElroy says given the legal obligation to transport non-district students, and the uncertainties of the pandemic, there is very little flexibility.

"Transporting our charter school students to school first, and then transporting Columbus City School elementary students, CTE students and current Tech students absorbs all of our capacity.  Also, we have to watch our call-off rate, to be transparent.  If we exceed 9-10% call-off, we're right at that 530-531 threshhold.  So we have to work with our staff to make sure they come to work.  and they're doing very well at this time, but you know how things can change."

McElroy says 600 CCS families and 800 private school families have opted out of yellow bus service for the time being.  The district is sending another needs assesment to families to see if more are willing to provide their own transportation.  But he says even if a large number of families are placed on pause that may not solve the transportation problems, because of the large amount of territory covered.

"It's safe to say that if we have students removed or paused, that will help us to adjust routing, but we have to see the data looks like to determine the difference that will make in terms of providing service to additional grade levels."

The issue of adequate staffing is even more complicated - and systemic - when it comes to having enough teachers and substitutes.  Human Resources Director Mike de Fabbo says comparable sized districts have a pool of a thousand substitute teachers.  But over the years, CCS' substitute pool has shrunk to 367 - even before the pandemic.  While the district has increased pay and now provides benefits for substitutes the situation is still critical.  And de Fabbo says the situation is not likely to improve for several weeks.

"Our preferred model, 100%, is an assigned building sub showing up every single day.  What we've heard from our sub pool, what we would consider our day subs, is that they don't want to come back until they get vaccinated."

Superintendent Talisa Dixon says that changes the original plans to reopen schools.

"When we were thinking about having 407 subs ready to go in, and then to later find out that some subs were like, 'you know, I'm not sure; I would rather stay in a virtual space' - we did not anticipate that." 

Dixon says was honest with Governor Mike DeWine about the problems the district faced when she signed the pledge that schools would reopen by March 1.  She says 4,000 staff members have been vacccinated, and 24-thousand students *have* come back to buildings. More students will come back in coming months.  But Dixon says doing that safely will take time.

A native of Chicago, naturalized citizen of Cincinnati and resident of Columbus, Alison attended Earlham College and the Ohio State University. She has equal passion for Midwest history, hockey and Slavic poetry.
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