MANSFIELD — School districts in Richland County will likely start the next school year with a mixture of in-person and online classes, Richland County Commissioner Tony Vero said Tuesday morning.
If that's the case, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Vero and his fellow commissioners want to find out if federal CARES Act funds can be used to help ensure students have internet access.
Commissioners have said the county will receive at least $2 million in CARES Act funds, though that number could increase. The funds can only be used for expenses directly related to the pandemic.
Vero, whose father was a school principal, said he participated Friday in a call with district superintendents from around the county.
All of the state's K-12 in-person instruction was halted in March by Gov. Mike DeWine due to COVID-19, requiring districts to quickly come up with virtual plans to finish the 2019-2020 school year.
"I can tell you the tenor of the (Friday) call was that all of them, in some capacity, expect to have some form of remote learning during the next school year," Vero said. "They're not going to be able to have full enrollment every day (due to expected state rules requiring social distancing, etc.)."
Vero said that could result in students attending in-person classes two or three days a week while also using virtual instruction. That is a concern for all districts, especially those where a large percentage of the students do not have home internet access.
"One of the things we are finding in speaking to multiple superintendents is that students away from school can fall farther behind," he said, citing internet access, computers (hardware and software) and varying degrees of parental support.
According to a story in the Columbus Dispatch, DeWine is expected this week to release state guidelines for reopening schools this fall. But it will be up to each district to decide what form that return will take, the governor has said.
Vero said Mansfield City Schools and the Madison Local School District are among those with a large percentage of students facing a lack of internet access.
"The Madison superintendent (Rob Peterson) reached out to me. He said they have distributed Chromebooks to students, but it's not of much use if they don't have internet access.
"I am going to make some calls and do a deep dive to see if and how we can use CARES money to help with this issue. Each school district will need to come up with what is best for their students," Vero said.
"We want to make (assistance) available to all students in the county, knowing there are some districts that will need it more than others," the commissioner said.
Vero said it's also possible the state guidelines could change before the new school year begins.
Earlier this month, the Ohio House approved legislation that would help expand broadband across Ohio, which could benefit school districts in rural areas.
Nearly one million Ohioans lack a reliable internet connection and about 300,000 households have no broadband options whatsoever, according to the bill sponsors.
The Residential Broadband Expansion Program would provide grants to offset construction cost hurdles and help facilitate the expansion of high-speed internet and all broadband services to unserved householders across Ohio.
“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has underscored how critically important it is for Ohioans to have access to reliable high-speed internet,” said state Rep. Rick Carfagna, whose district includes the eastern half of Delaware County and all of Knox County.
“As so many of our economic, educational, and social activities have shifted to virtual platforms, the divide between those who have access to the internet and those who do not has been exacerbated," Carfagna said.