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Franklin County Public Health urges caution to schools considering all in-person learning

The health organization also put out a list of recommendations for school districts.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Amid a rise in coronavirus cases, Franklin County Public Health issued new recommendations for school districts this week that are considering returning to an all in-person learning model.

Based on the uptick in coronavirus cases – including that Franklin County has now re-entered its designation in the “red” or “level 3” on the statewide public health advisory map – Franklin County Health Commissioner Joe Mazzola said that coronavirus remains a “significant concern” to health officials.

“We are now in flu season and we see some new trends emerge we really wanted to just inform that conversation,” Mazzola told 10TV News Friday.

RELATED: Franklin County elevated to red in coronavirus alert system; 65% of Ohioans living in 'very high exposure' counties

The letter issued Thursday to Franklin County superintendents and school boards makes a new recommendation for districts to consider if districts are considering moving to all in-person learning – including maintaining a caseload of 50 cases per 100,000 people for two weeks. That per capita figure right now may seem like a distant goal as the county currently sits at 126 cases per 100,000.

The letter also states:

“FCPH would recommend schools consider the following as part of its future decision-making process:

  • Maintain a per capita case count of less than 50/100,000 over a two-week timeframe
  • Review their “all-in” plan and timeline with FCPH prior to adoption
  • Consider the operational impact of not being able to maintain 6 feet of separation (i.e. the number of students subject to quarantine is likely to increase) 
  • Continue to provide virtual option for parent/guardians who prefer distance learning

“That’s something that was new – something that we haven’t put out previously. We are trying to align our recommendations with the state benchmarks,” Mazzola said.

Franklin County moved back into the “red” this week on the statewide health advisory map after weeks of remaining in the “orange” or “level 2” for COVID-19 cases. But a rise in cases per capita, an increase in cases in congregated settings and emergency department and hospital visits moved the county in the “red.”

That could lead some parents to be concerned their child’s learning model has the potential to change as the figures trend upwards.

So far no Franklin County school districts reached by 10TV News on Friday have indicated that they are making a change as a direct result of Thursday’s map.

Kelli Newman with Columbus Public Health said right now her department is not changing its guidance for schools.

“We think that at this time, it is still safe for kids to go back into the classroom for in-person or hybrid learning as long as there is not a run on our hospitals and all public health recommendations are being followed.”

Here’s a breakdown of what we’ve learned so far:

COLUMBUS CITY SCHOOLS

A spokeswoman said Friday that the district’s blended learning plans calls for the optional virtual or in-person orientation sessions to begin the week of October 19, before the transition to a blended learning model.

If anything changes, we’ll update staff, families and the Columbus community.

When asked about the change to public health advisory map, the CCS spokeswoman provided this statement:

“The District will continue to work closely with Columbus Public Health to analyze the latest data and how it impacts our District boundaries and family zip codes. Our priority remains the health and safety of our students, staff, families, and the Columbus community as we determine the best course forward to provide rigorous and equitable educational opportunities for all students. At this time, all CCS staff will continue to follow their current work schedule on-site until further notice. We understand that rapid change is the one certainty we can count on as we all work through this ongoing pandemic.”

CCS also put out this release earlier in the week:

“Our blended learning plan calls for virtual or in-person individual orientation sessions for each grade level in grades Pre-K to 8, including unique student populations, before they fully return in-person for the blended learning model. The virtual and in-person individual grade level orientation sessions begin the week of October 19 for Pre-K to 3 students and continue with a gradual approach for other grade levels and student groups. This will allow for a thoughtful, phased-in transition for teachers and staff and students and families.”

"We know families have questions and concerns, so our updated blended learning plan now includes virtual or in-person individual orientation sessions for each grade level in grades Pre-K to 8, including unique student populations, before they fully return in-person for the blended learning model," said Superintendent/CEO Dr. Talisa Dixon. "Families and students will have the opportunity to understand the new level of health protocols and safety protections we have put in place." 

RELATED: Columbus City Schools announces orientation schedule ahead of in-person learning start dates

UPPER ARLINGTON SCHOOLS

10TV News did not hear back from school spokespeople from Upper Arlington as of late Friday afternoon.
Here is what Upper Arlington shared to its school district website with its October 9 update:

As I have shared in recent weeks, we’re partnering with OSU’s College of Public Health in a pilot project to have COVID-related health data specific to our school district’s attendance area.  In addition, we’re working with our Medical Advisory Team - which is made up of experts in the areas of public health and infectious disease - to interpret that data and determine when it might be safe to move our students on the school-based pathway to a full five-day-a-week model.

The Medical Advisory Team met twice this week to continue its discussions.  While they’re still developing a full framework, it has become clear that one very important indicator will be our community’s case rate per 100,000.  This number is one of the many data points provided by the COVID-19 Analytics and Targeted Surveillance (CATS) program.  It’s displayed on our COVID-19 data dashboard and updated each Friday. This week’s number is 78 per 100,000, which is up a bit from last week’s number of 63 per 100,000.

The advisory team continues to discuss exactly where this case rate number needs to be and for how long, but it seems likely that they will want to see four to six weeks of data to inform any recommendation to move to our five-day plan.

The team also continues to discuss what other data points will be used in their framework, and how those may impact how long our case rate would have to be at or below the eventual target number.

As the team progresses in its work, I will continue to share updates with you. It’s been fascinating to listen in on their discussions, and I’m honored that individuals with such a high level of expertise are using their time to help us meet the goal of our Responsible Restart Plan, which is to return to a five-day-a-week model as soon as it is safe to do so.

You can find all of this week’s updated health data on our COVID-19 data dashboard.”

NEW ALBANY PLAIN LOCAL SCHOOLS

When asked if the district planned to make changes based on the new advisory map, a spokesman for New Albany Plain Local Schools said this in an email: “No, not at this time. We will continue to work closely with Franklin County Public Health to monitor the situation and seek guidance especially in reference to the school district boundaries, the local area and the number of cases. We update our dashboard each Friday to reflect any new cases or quarantines.”

HILLIARD CITY SCHOOLS

Here is what the district shared to its website in a October 1 update:

“We know continued changes in our restart plans create challenges for our families. We are thankful for the continued partnership as we work together during this Covid-19 Crisis to both protect and educate our students,” shared Hilliard Superintendent John Marschhausen.

Dr. Marschhausen also shared, “Our local data is currently trending in the wrong direction. Our local case count is once again over 100 cases per 100,000. Our school community needs to experience two weeks below 50 cases per 100,000 before we would begin the transition to All-In. We need to lower our community spread before All-In is a possibility. With this in mind, we are several weeks away from a potential transition from Hybrid to All-In."

WESTERVILLE CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT

10TV News did not hear back from Westerville schools as of Friday afternoon.

The district does maintain a COVID-19 dashboard that can be accessed here.

REYNOLDSBURG CITY SCHOOLS

A spokeswoman for this district said that they plan on moving to a hybrid model on Monday October 19th. The district had been in a virtual model.

WORTHINGTON CITY SCHOOLS

A spokeswoman told 10TV via email: “Worthington will continue to do school in our hybrid mode. There is not a clearcut if this, then that formula. We will continue to heed the recommendations of our local health department.”

PICKERINGTON LOCAL SCHOOL DISTRICT

A spokeswoman for PLSD put out this update on the district’s website Friday afternoon:

“We are aware that Franklin County is back in ‘red’ status per this week’s Ohio Department of Health’s Public Health Advisory System. It is worth noting that Franklin County was in ‘red’ status when Pickerington Schools made the decision to start the hybrid model in August.

We are also aware that while Fairfield County remains in Orange Status, the New Cases Per Capita have increased over the last 2 weeks. Moreover, we know that the 7-day rolling average number of Outpatient Visits has increased for at least 5 consecutive days over the past week in Fairfield County. Additionally, the Non-Congregate Case Spread, which measures the extent to which the virus spreads in a community setting, has continued to be an area of concern. 

However, the 7-day rolling average number of Overall Cases has dropped over the last week, and Emergency Room visits and Hospital Visits (which are more of a measure of the severity of the impact on those infected) have dropped over the last week.

We continue to monitor the Advisory Dashboard carefully as we continue in our Hybrid Model.

Within the school setting itself, we have not, however, seen a dramatic shift in the numbers of students and staff being infected or quarantined over the past 2-3 weeks.

A look at our COVID-19 Dashboard shows our data as follows:

At this time, we plan to continue our Hybrid Learning plan, along with our COVID-19 safety protocols in the school setting and per our Flexible Learning Plan 2.0. Additionally, we will carefully monitor the data as we progress towards November 16, when we are scheduled to begin in-person instruction for students on a four day per week basis.

We stress to our parents and students to continue to be diligent with all COVID-19 safety protocols in all settings away from school.”

Dublin and South-Western City Schools were among the other districts that did not get back to 10TV News as of Friday afternoon.

RELATED: Ohio coronavirus updates: Second straight day of more than 2,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases