Officials Address Tech Ed, Safety as Schools Reopen

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — During a virtual meeting with regional school administrators, state elected officials advised working together and looking to the business community for ideas on reopening safely this month.

Education and economic development are “essential partners” when it comes to workforce development, said Lt. Gov. Jon Husted. When people enter the job market with the essential skills they need, they have greater job security and are a benefit to employers, he said.

“I think there’s a renewed understanding and respect for the fact that education is essential to the development, not just academically but holistically, of young people,” Husted said. “That’s what you do. And that’s what we need you to do.”

Husted spoke as part of the 17th annual Mahoning County Educational Service Center Administrative Conference. Guest speakers included Husted, state Sen. Michael Rulli, state Auditor Keith Faber and Treasurer Robert Sprague.

Despite a state unemployment rate of 10.9%, it doesn’t change employers’ need for workers with technical skills, Husted said. The coronavirus pandemic gave rise to increased need for telehealth, working remotely and online education.

“Technology is increasing in its importance in our marketplace and our daily lives,” he said.

That trend is evidenced by the latest round of funding through the state’s TechCred program, with a record-setting number of 3,241 credentials being approved for 302 companies – a 101% increase over credentials funded in January, he said.

“They need people with these tech skills to integrate everything businesses do into a digital platform,” he said. “It’s happening at a rapid pace.”

And schools are adapting to that change for students as well as their own professional development. During the meeting, the ESC’s director of teaching and learning, John Kuzma, discussed how the organization aided schools with shifting to virtual formats at the end of the last school year.

The ESC used Zoom and Google Meet to keep in touch with teachers, helped create online lessons to support teachers who worked remotely, created collaborative spaces for administrators to come together to discuss needs and provided virtual office hours, he said.

The agency also provided professional development sessions on technology for teachers.

“Teachers were very adamant about growing themselves professionally in terms of technology. We were with them every step of the way,” Kuzma said.

Nearly 2,000 teachers and administrators attended virtual professional development events, he said. Just last week, 877 attended a technology-related virtual professional development session.

Kuzma introduced attendees to a new online resource at MahoningESC.yuja.com, which provides teachers with a video platform for recorded professional development videos, technology sessions, information about tech tools and other curriculum resources.

“We’re trying to provide content that is relative to your teachers at a time like this,” he said. “We also see this as an opportunity to provide tutorials to your teachers.”

Regarding schools reopening, Husted says he is happy with the state’s decision to allow districts to make localized decisions based on their current situation.

State Sen. Rulli, R-33 Salem, told the group his office is always open to working with school districts in putting together their blueprints for reopening. The co-owner of Rulli Bros. compared his experience in grocery during the pandemic to the challenges schools are facing.

“I’ve been on the front line of this pandemic” from the beginning, Rulli said. “Having the grocery stories, we really got hit the hardest. It was the last line of defense in continuing to feed the people.”

The company considered grocery delivery, but the service would only cover 20% of his market, so closing the store wasn’t an option, he said. Rulli coordinated with other grocery owners in the region, as well as the Mahoning County Public Health department, in developing the plan to stay open and keep customers and employees safe, he said.

In an effort to ease the anxiety of customers, Rulli Bros. invested some $35,000 in Plexiglass barriers and personal protective equipment, he said. The grocery store also organized and implemented a curbside pick-up service immediately, he said.

“At first glance, these don’t seem like a part of education. But they have everything to do with education,” he said.

Parents and faculty are anxious about reopening the schools, and districts are developing their own blueprints to bring students back into the classroom, he said. Rulli advised school administrators to look to businesses like grocery stores when determining mitigation efforts.

Whether using markings on the floor, dividing classrooms in half or advising students with compromised immune systems to consider a virtual option, efforts to go toward the main goal of reducing foot traffic in the school to help maintain social distancing, he said.

“If you think that having 100 cases of gloves or masks is enough, I would double that. Because you have to have those available,” he said.

Rulli cited pictures that surfaced this past week from schools in Georgia, where corridors were packed with students, some not wearing masks. “The optics to that is horrible,” as was the social media backlash, he said.

To avoid such backlash, Rulli advised administrators and principals to keep an open line of communication with school boards, and to be leaders for the efforts.

“If we put our heads together, we can really have a solid plan; a blueprint to have a safe environment,” he said.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.