(The Center Square) – A bill to allow schools in Ohio to open this fall is prompting more questions than answers.
“Any decision on reopening schools next year must be driven by guidance from public health officials,” Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, told members of the Senate Education Committee. “The coming school year is unlikely to look like anything that has preceded it. Schools will and should reopen when public health standards can be met.”
The comments came during a hearing on Senate Bill 320. The legislation generally places the authority about whether to open in the hands of local school boards and governing bodies.
According to a Legislative Service Commission (LSC) review of the bill, elected or appointed officials at the state level would not be able to stop a school from opening or force a school system to close. The officials would not be able to force a school system to adopt safety guidelines in response to COVID-19.
Sandusky City Schools CEO and Superintendent Eugene T. W. Sanders outlined a host of questions from school administrators, ranging from questions about budgets to social distancing requirements to potential punishments for schools that fall short of state requirements.
“Fundamental to all planning questions are the requirements for social distancing and spacing guidance,” Sanders told lawmakers. “This central question will dictate most solutions.”
School administrators are generally looking at several scenarios for the fall, including students schooling from home, a full return to classes or a hybrid mix that includes a part-time return to the classroom.
“Administrators, educators and other stakeholders should be afforded the flexibility to develop collaboratively a plan that meets the needs of their students and communities,” DiMauro said.
“What that looks like can and should vary from district to district,” DiMauro said. “However, meeting health requirements laid out by the Ohio Department of Health should be a minimum expectation of parents, students and staff aimed at protecting their health.”
DiMauro’s comments garnered a series of questions from state Sens. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, and Bill Coley, R-Liberty Township, about the role of state and local authorities in the decision-making process.
“There’s nothing in this bill that prevents a local school board from listening to the state health department or their county health departments or their local health jurisdictions and following their advice, is there?” Brenner asked. DiMauro responded there is not.
“Why would you not trust your local school boards and superintendents who know their school districts the best taking information from state and local health departments to be able to determine whether or not their school buildings and districts should be open?” Brenner followed up.
“It’s not a question of trust,” DiMauro said. “It’s a question of understanding who is best positioned to make critical decisions in the midst of a global pandemic."
DiMauro continued: "The governor currently has authority, and the director of the Ohio Department of Health has certain authority. This bill would undermine that authority, and we think that that would be at the detriment to our students and to our communities and to our members.”