ONTARIO — Ontario will not offer an online academy option for the majority of its students next fall, director of education Mike Ream said at a Tuesday night school board meeting.
Ream announced the district will be transitioning back to “pre-COVID” levels of virtual learning, meaning only students with extenuating circumstances will be eligible for an online academy program.
“As a district, we fundamentally believe that teaching and learning is a human business,” Ream said. “The best teaching and learning is going to occur with our students and teachers face-to-face.”
No online option will be available for elementary students, but the district will continue to offer the Ontario Online Academy for middle and high school students who meet “pre-COVID” enrollment criteria. Those criteria include a medical or physician referral, behavioral issues, religious preferences or special educational needs.
Ream said that prior to the pandemic, there were typically between 20 and 25 students enrolled in the online academy per school year. Students with significant health concerns related to COVID-19 could still seek admittance to the digital academy, but would need a physician referral.
“This is where we intend to go as of today. We’re seeing improvements with COVID and so we’re making plans that continue on that path," he added.
The demand for online learning has waned significantly since the beginning of the school year, when 15 percent of the student body was enrolled in Ontario's digital academy. Ream told the board that 45 percent of virtual elementary students have already returned to the classroom.
The district surveyed the remaining online elementary families in mid-March and found that 83 percent planned to return to the classroom next school year. Twelve percent are undecided and only five percent said they would either not return to the district or look for a virtual learning option for the 2021-2022 school year.
During a brief discussion about COVID-19 procedures for next school year, Superintendent Lisa Carmichael said she would favor ending the mask mandate for students if the state government lifts the requirement.
“My recommendation if the governor is going to allow local decision is to not mandate masks, especially for our little ones at Stingel," Carmichael said.
She noted that about 70 percent of Ontario staff have received the COVID-19 vaccine and students ages 12 and older will likely have the opportunity to get vaccinated before next school year if they wish to do so. She added that if individual students and staff wish to continue wearing masks, they will be permitted to do so.
In other business, Treasurer Randy Harvey gave an overview of the district’s five-year forecast. Harvey predicted more positive outcomes than in the November five-year forecast, which was released prior to the release of most COVID-19 relief funding.
"It's kind of done its job," Harvey said of COVID-19 relief funding. "It's kind of restored us back to pre-COVID-type numbers."
In November, Harvey projected spending deficits every school year. In the new forecast, the district is in the black until the 2023-2024 school year. Harvey also projected an ending fund balance of $4,917,964 in fiscal year 2025. In the November forecast, that figure was $2,373,281.
-- The board also voted to raise the hourly rate for bus drivers, the maintenance staff and the district mechanic by $3, effective at the start of the 2021-2022 school year. The new starting salary will be $23.09 for drivers and $23.26 for maintenance workers and mechanics.
Carmichael told the board the district is in desperate need of regular and substitute bus drivers. According to Carmichael, Ontario and Lucas are the only school districts in the area that do not offer health insurance benefits to transportation personnel, which makes it hard to attract drivers.
-- The board also accepted the retirement of Stingel Elementary intervention specialist Linda Cooper and declared its intent to rehire her for the 2021-2022 school year.
Carmichael said she doesn't typically recommend retire/rehires to the board, but intervention specialists are very hard to find. She added that as a retire/rehire, Cooper would rejoin the district at a salary step 11 and would not receive health insurance benefits, saving the district approximately $40,000.
"I believe this is a win-win situation. We'd get a quality teacher back and we'd save the district money," Carmichael said.
The board of education will have a public hearing on the retire/rehire during its June 8 board meeting.