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School leaders from across nation discuss their pandemic planning

YOUNGSTOWN — CEO Justin Jennings told a group of superintendents that the Youngstown City School District was preparing for virtual learning during the three months prior to start of this academic year.

Jennings said because the district announced it would be virtual early in the summer, the district’s teachers had extra time to prepare for teaching by getting necessary equipment, taking courses and writing specialized lesson plans.

“We used a portion of our CARES Act funds to buy computers and hot spots,” Jennings said. “Our teachers had time to be very creative in their preparation for the school year.”

Jennings was one of six superintendents and CEOs who on Tuesday discussed ways to lead school districts during the coronavirus pandemic.

Also in the Virtual Institute Building Educators webinar were Avis Williams, superintendent of the Selma, Ala. School District, Gregory McCord, Marlboro County School District in South Carolina, Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, superintendent of the Peoria, Ill. public schools, and Pascal Mubenga, superintendent of Durham, N.C. schools.

Gregory Jackson, who sponsored the webinar, noted that COVID-19 has 6 million confirmed cases and 200,000 deaths. A survey of 47 school districts found that 43 percent of parents are comfortable sending their children back into the classrooms, he said.

“This means the majority are not,” Jackson said.

Desmoulin-Kherat, whose school district is looking to return from fully online to a hybrid teaching model, said her school district has been working with the local health district to ensure the area has less than 5 percent COVID-19 cases before reopening. She is looking to bring her students back into the classrooms in October.

Williams said the Selma district began 100 percent online, but through surveys it has found the vast majority of parents, teachers and students want to return to in person classes in the buildings.

“We want to get our students back,” Williams said.

Mubenga, whose school district began the year online only, is expecting to make a recommendation to his school board whether students should attend classes in their buildings more than one day per week.

“Connectivity has been a problem,” he said.

Jennings emphasized that school leaders sometimes have to make decisions that are not popular, but are better for the health of their students and staff.

“We have to err on the side of safety. CDC recommendations are changing every day,” he said.

Jennings said his job is to educate the district students, not babysit them.

He noted that one of the district’s employees died after contracting COVID-19 while on the job.

“I take this very personal,” Jennings said. “At the end of the day, I want what is best for our scholars both educationally and keeping them safe.”

Mubenga explained that between 60 and 70 percent of his district’s students are successfully learning using the online model. Superintendents must decide whether bringing the students back into the classrooms will increase learning or set them back.

“We have to look at safety,” he said. “It is not an easy decision. We know that after schools closed in March that many students fell behind and have not caught back up.”

Jennings emphasized that educators must take the lessons being learned today about online learning and use them even after the pandemic is over.

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