EP still gathering input on school restart

EAST PALESTINE — With the 2020-21 school year closing in, districts in Columbiana County have begun to release their plans for restarting school with the COVID-19 pandemic at the front of everyone’s mind.

In East Palestine, Superintendent Chris Neifer and his administrative staff have been meticulously constructing a flexible plan, given the ever-changing situation. However, in order to receive some more feedback and engage with parents in the community, the school board approved a full restart plan presented by Neifer at Monday’s school board meeting.

A brief initial plan was released last week, and parents were encouraged to fill out an online form, saying which option their child will start with during the fall: in person or remote. The more detailed return plan was released Tuesday to the community, as well as a revised calendar for the 2020-21 school year.

“We did release information on Friday to get the ball rolling on our restart plan,” Neifer said. “I want to remind everyone that this is a moving target that we’re trying to plan for. We’re getting news for new adjustments every day.”

Instead of going through the full 16-page back-to-school plan, Neifer answered many of the frequently asked questions by parents about remote learning and other logistics. He also revealed some of the results of the feedback they’ve receive so far.

Of the 210 students to sign up as of Monday, 75 percent have decided to attend school in person and 25 percent have decided to attend remotely. Based on the feedback that the district received on early surveys, Neifer has not been surprised by the results so far. Families are encouraged to make their decisions and fill out the form by Aug. 10.

Bus transportation is another big question mark for districts, as tight enclosed spaces are more likely to cause the spread of the virus. Of the 75 percent of students who are attending school in person, only about 40 percent plan on using the bus transportation. With less students on the bus, it will make social distancing more feasible.

Neifer also took the time to explain the Virtual Bulldog Learning Academy, which is a purchased curriculum that the remote students will be using. The Jefferson County ESC created the virtual learning academy that has been used by many school districts over the past 15-20 years. The district has purchased the curriculum, which offers different videos, reading selections and other resources. It is a K-12 curriculum that offers over 300 courses, including all of the courses that East Palestine provides in person.

“Since we are coming back face-to-face, it’s not going to be like last year where they had the availability to just get to a teacher whenever they want,” Neifer said. “With that said, we will have teachers available to answer questions and provide tech support. But they will not have the availability they are used to having. That’s what the curriculum is designed for.”

If a student opts into the virtual learning academy, the district has asked that the student sticks with their decision for the first nine weeks of school. The students who choose the virtual learning route will have the same opportunities in extra-curricular activities, athletics, dances and more.

“For the sake of logistics and trying to create some continuity for both the staff and kids at home and here, we have asked that once you make a decision, you stay with that decision for the first nine weeks,” Neifer said. As more information comes out of the governor’s office, Neifer and his administrative staff will be prepared to pivot and make additional adjustments. The next school board meeting is set for 6 p.m. Sept. 8.


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