Faced with a governor who appears intent on holding school districts to a coronavirus vaccine agreement, Columbus City School leaders appear just as set on not being able to live up to the deal.
Gov. Mike DeWine this week specifically addressed the state’s largest district, which has so far only brought elementary students back into physical classrooms, but not most middle and high school students.
“If the school is not going to have every student back fully in-person or hybrid by March 1, then they’re breaking the agreement,” DeWine said Tuesday in response to a reporter question.
Columbus, like nearly every other district in Ohio, agreed to have all students back in classroom full-time or in a hybrid model by March 1 in order to give teachers and school employees early access to coronavirus vaccines. Starting in early February, grades K-5 were divided in half, with each group attending in-person classes for two days and staying remote the other three.
Grades 6-12, however, remain entirely remote, just as they’ve been for almost a year. And the district currently has no timeline for when they’ll return to classrooms.
This situation prompted a number of Columbus residents to ask WOSU’s Curious Cbus series what the district is doing to fix the problem.
Steven McElroy, executive director of business and operations in the district’s transportation office, says they just don’t have the capacity to bus middle and high school students right now.
“Currently, we have the capacity to route our elementary students, our complex needs students, our career tech students, and we also transport charter and non-public students to school as well,” McElroy says.
Columbus City Schools covers about 51,000 students in 109 schools. But under Ohio law, Columbus City Schools must provide transportation for all eligible students in its district – including those who attend private, charter or parochial schools instead of public ones.
When asked how they plan to meet the state’s March 1 deadline, McElroy responded, “I continue to follow our superintendent’s direction, and again we’re working diligently to try to find other means of transporting students to school.”
McElroy says their busing capacity has been drastically reduced by social distancing guidelines from Columbus Public Health. McElroy says they’re now limited to one student per bus seat, whereas buses used to be able to hold up to three students per seat.
The Columbus Education Association, the union for Columbus teachers, responded to DeWine’s comments about Columbus with a statement calling the requirement to bus charter and private school students “outrageous.” CEA president John Coneglio said it’s the district’s largest barrier to full hybrid learning.
McElroy declined to comment on whether the state should waive the requirement to bus all students who live in the district.
“I really don’t care to comment on that,” McElroy said. “My role is to transport students to school, and we love that role. We love to support all students within Columbus, so that will continue to be my focus.”
McElroy says he’s not sure if there’s a way for Columbus City Schools to resolve its conflict with the state before March 1.
“Again, we’re working diligently to see what we can do from a transportation perspective,” he said.
This story was prompted by listener questions about COVID-19 and Ohio’s response. Ask your own questions below and WOSU may answer for a future story.