COLUMBUS, Ohio (FOX19) - Gov. Mike DeWine called out Cincinnati Public Schools in a statewide address Friday for the district’s plan to keep one of its high schools remote for the rest of the year.
CPS’s Board of Education voted earlier this week to reverse an earlier decision that would have reopened Walnut Hills High School to in-person learning with a hybrid model. The school would have reopened with 3 feet of separation between students due to spatial constraints, whereas the district-wide policy requires 6 feet of separation.
The Enquirer quotes Walnut Hills teacher Brandon Keller as telling the board during public comment: “Your decision will have a body count.”
Per the newly adopted plan, Walnut Hills students will not return to the classroom for the rest of the year.
“That is simply not acceptable,” said DeWine, who assumed the governor’s bully pulpit Friday evening intending to remind CPS and two other districts of standing agreements to return to in-person learning.
Those agreements were signed in January by district superintendents, including CPS’s Laura Mitchell.
“We said to our school districts that we would take some of the precious vaccine allotted to Ohio and vaccinate teachers and other staff as long as they’d be back in school full-time or in a hybrid model no later than March 1,” the governor explained.
Ohio’s largest teacher unions, including the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, excoriated the agreements in a joint release, calling them a coercive attempt to hold the vaccines hostage: “Governor DeWine needs to stop playing games with the health and lives of our school communities.”
Speaking to the agreements Friday, DeWine framed them as entirely voluntary, adding that Ohio has never required schools to go back: “[The school districts] didn’t have to do this. This was a conscious decision they made with a piece of paper that was very plain.”
He said the state had only deviated from targeting those 70 and older at that stage in the rollout because of the importance of getting kids back in school.
“Don’t take the vaccine if you’re not going to get back in school,” he said, “because the reason you are getting the vaccine — the reason we are taking it away from other at-risk people — is because you agreed to go back.”
DeWine cited findings from the CDC and other researchers he said show schools are largely safe with mask use and social distancing.
He also referenced testing done in Ohio that allegedly show infectious students rarely spread the virus when masks are worn and 3-feet of social distancing is observed. “What we’ve found time after time is that there is no exposure.”
CFT President Julie Sellers says she was blindsided by the move: “No announcement ahead of time. No courtesy calls to districts. He just came on, and we were called out and publicly shamed.”
DeWine faulted CPS for signing the agreement in the first place if doubts existed about Walnut Hills being able to return safely. “If we were going to have that conversation, it should have taken place at that time.”
The governor did not offer any solutions for Walnut Hills’s particular plight, something Sellers thinks he should have tried before “pointing the finger.” He only said he had spoken to Mitchell about the school’s spacing concerns and that he had hoped the district would have worked it out by now.
CPS teachers have received their first round of vaccinations, leaving the governor few immediate recourses if CPS continues with its plan. He said he would not delay second doses due to the ethical problems posed.
“We have to see what else we could do,” he said, adding the purpose of his address Friday was not to punish, but to try to get kids back in school.
“I just think it’s difficult for districts,” Sellers said. “We are doing the best that we can do. He doesn’t seem to understand many of the safety concerns for our families.”
DeWine also criticized the Akron and Cleveland school districts.
Currently 94.9 percent of school districts in Ohio have returned to the classroom in some form, according to the governor.
FOX19 NOW has reached out to CPS for comment.
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