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Some schools returning to in-person classes

SOME BELMONT County students will return to their schools for in-person instruction this week as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Following new guidelines from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and the Ohio Department of Health office that reduce recommended social distancing from 6 feet to 3 feet in classroom settings as long as masks are used, several area school districts will welcome students back five days a week. Studies are showing that the danger of infection is not as great in that environment.

The districts started the school year with a normal schedule and took precautions against spreading COVID-19, but since Belmont County had a high level of infection they shifted to remote learning or a hybrid system of in-person and remote learning to keep at least half the student body out of school at a time.

Following the Christmas and New Year holidays, many districts resumed classes on a remote basis.

DeWine said vaccines for school staff members will be available in February and expressed hope that normal schooling might resume March 1. Still, the choice about how to conduct classes safely will be up to individual districts, based on conditions in their communities.

St. Clairsville-Richland City Schools Superintendent Walt Skaggs said his district will resume full-time in-person education Tuesday.

“I’m glad the vaccine’s going to be available and that people who choose to take it will have that opportunity,” Skaggs said. “We … put a questionnaire out just asking staff … whether they would want to take the vaccine if it were available,” he said. “A majority of them want the vaccination.”

Union Local Superintendent Ben Porter also hopes for a return to normal, but the district currently has no plans to return to in-person instruction five days a week and is making these decisions on a week-by-week basis.

“I am very thankful that school employees will have the option for the vaccine. It’s been a very challenging year up to this point in time,” Porter said.

Martins Ferry City Schools District will remain on the hybrid model this week, but according to a statement from Superintendent Jim Fogle, on Jan. 25 students will return to a regular in-person schedule four days per week.

“All students who opted for in-person learning will attend school on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Wednesday will remain a virtual day for all students,” Fogle said.

Fogle said his staff is also considering the opportunity for vaccination.

“We are currently in the preliminary stages of developing a plan for administering the vaccine to employees of the district. We are coordinating with Rob Sproul and Belmont County Health officials to determine what this process will look like. The first step is determining the number of doses of vaccine we will need for our employees. We are looking forward to being able to bring the vaccine to district employees. I hope this is the first step to getting our students back to in-person learning.”

Superintendent Brent Ripley of the Bridgeport Exempted Village School District said normal learning will soon resume.

“Here at Bridgeport, we are coming back. We’re going to be full-go next week. All of our kids every day, all day, and we thought with the updated regulations, we’re going to be good to go,” he said. “Bridgeport was one of the first school districts to implement using masks full-time, so our kids have done well and we’re not seeing the spread in the school. We’re doing a very good job with our cleaning protocols, and the kids are doing an amazing job.”

Ripley said of the more than 100 staff members, about 80 have expressed an interest in being vaccinated.

“We’re excited to have the kids back,” Ripley said.

Plans are similar in Barnesville.

“We are planning on going full time,” Superintendent Angela Hannahs of the Barnesville Exempted Village School District said, adding that the district has been operating on the hybrid model.

She is still obtaining input from the staff regarding how many wish to be vaccinated.

“We have all kinds of staff to think about. Substitute teachers, coaches and everything,” she said, adding most of the students are eager to resume learning in the classroom. “We had some students that opted out at the very beginning of the school year to online learning, but we’ve had several of those kids come back to in-person learning.”

Shadyside Local School District Superintendent John Haswell said the district also began remote education following the holiday, followed by a week with the hybrid model, but will return to in-person classes this week.

“Tuesday we’ll be back in session, five days a week,” he said. “We plan on going five days a week. The reason for that is, No. 1 we have several kids that have chosen remote learning for the nine weeks, and the other reason is the Ohio Department of Health and Belmont County Health Department has changed their guidelines about contact tracing as far as being 6 feet apart anymore. You can be as close as 3 feet apart as long as the kids are wearing a mask, which we mandate anyhow, and the staff. They will not be quarantined if somebody tests positive.”

Haswell said about 65 percent of the staff at Shadyside, or 55 out of a total 85, will opt to be vaccinated,

According to an online release from Bellaire Local Schools Superintendent Darren Jenkins, Bellaire schools have been operating under a hybrid model and are committed to the goal of resuming full-time, face-to-face instruction Jan. 19.

“Even though the number of cases in the general population might be higher now as compared to when we began hybrid learning, cases associated with the Bellaire Schools are at a low point, both student and staff cases. We have had no evidence to suggest any spread has occurred within the school setting during the pandemic,” he stated, adding it is in the students’ best interest to be in school. “The Bellaire Local School District will resume in-person, face-to-face instruction 100 percent of the time.”

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