Local control shouldn't mean going it alone
The 2020–21 school year in the Cleveland Heights–University Heights district is expected to begin Sept. 2. The year will be unlike any other, with back-to-school excitement being tempered by health-related worries. We know children learn best when they are with their teachers in person, and families need teachers to take over instruction, but will the benefits outweigh the risks?
Covid-19 will dominate daily life for now, but Superintendent Liz Kirby hopes this will be the only year the virus factors into when children are in school, how they get there, what they do each day, and how much contact they have with others. She is determined to keep students on track. They cannot afford to lose more learning time, but how do you operate when so much is unknown?
Education is a shared responsibility of the state legislature and local school districts. Sadly, when it comes to planning for education in a pandemic, the legislature punted.
Under the soft-peddled label of local control, the state has abdicated its responsibility to provide funds or guidance that would help districts educate children safely. The Ohio Department of Health issued guidelines, but otherwise state leaders washed their hands of support or responsibility. "There isn’t even a requirement that districts have a plan for opening,” noted an incredulous Kirby.
Districts have been asked to accomplish something nearly impossible: Quickly, amidst threatening uncertainty, and without guidance or funding, transform a traditional institution into a health-driven learning environment. A sound plan is not enough. Parents, school employees and students must feel confident that their safety will not be sacrificed.
While state leaders are ducking their responsibility, our local leaders are not.
They looked to other states for planning models and took advantage of resources from the American Federation of Teachers and the Northeast Ohio Education Service Center.
Weekly meetings with superintendents from other first-ring suburbs have been helpful, and school district personnel have used their experience and perspective to link plans to reality. A listening campaign reached two-thirds of district parents.
Kirby plans another outreach to every family to discuss their choices, worries and needs, and she will continue to consult with teachers. This active outreach is unlike anything I have seen in my 40 years in the district.
For Kirby, the interaction with parents has been the silver lining of this disaster. She said the district is learning how to connect better with families and learn from their experiences. This change will have lasting benefits.
To maximize the benefits of local control, Kirby said she will listen, keep trying to identify issues that might have been missed, and consider the positions of everyone involved. But the buck stops with her. In the end, she and the board of education must decide how to proceed.
Making school safe is expensive. Revenue shortfalls left the district and state without resources, and, so far, the federal government has been unwilling to invest. Nonetheless, the pressure is on to educate kids at school.
Kirby is a realist. She knows whatever plan is finally adopted will not be perfect or accepted by all, funding might be limited and new, unpredicted issues will emerge. When the cracks appear, our job is to press for solutions without trashing the people who make the hard decisions. We all have a stake in helping to make this unusual year successful. Recognizing that it is a nearly impossible task is the place to start.
Kirby carries a heavy load. She also supplied the reassuring tone we need when she stated, “We will come out the other side.”
Susie Kaeser is a 40-year resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She is active in the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters.