Triad preschool students are shown above eating lunch during the first day back to full in-person classes on Jan. 4, 2021. The struggles of local schools to stay ahead of the COVID virus was voted as the top story of 2021 by the Journal-Tribune newsroom staff. (Photo submitted)
Just like in 2020, The struggle of local schools to deal with the COVID virus was voted the top local story of 2021 by the Journal-Tribune newsroom staff.
Nothing impacts a community more than its schools, and the pandemic had left officials at local districts battling to stay afloat, balancing student and staff safety with best educational practices.
Each district in the J-T coverage area has handled the pandemic differently.
School virus coverage beat out the chaos of growth in Jerome Township for the top spot on this year’s list.
Below are the top five local storylines of 2021. Positions 6-10 on the list were detailed in Thursday’s Journal-Tribune.
1. SCHOOLS BATTLE VIRUS
Following a year of educational upheaval in 2020, local students, parents, teachers and administrators were looking for one thing from 2021 – normalcy.
The greater part of 2020 was utter turmoil for educators. Schools went to remote learning to close out the school year and when classes resumed in the fall, most were in a hybrid format of at-home learning and in-person days.
As vaccines and other COVID mitigation efforts improved, parents hoped that 2021 would see their children return to class full time.
What the local communities found in the last 12 months was a rollercoaster ride of hope, tempered with local virus surges that made uncertainty the only thing that was truly certain.
In January the Marysville Board of Education voted to allow elementary students to return to class four days per week in February, with Wednesday being a virtual learning day. This was an improvement from the previous model of attending class two days per week and learning virtually the remaining three. Improved test availability and loosened distancing restrictions allowed the move, although students were still required to wear masks.
In February, local educators also identified instructional areas where the strain of remote learning had hindered educational growth and set plans in place to make up for the lost ground. March showed improved optimism as it was announced that the district would hold prom and graduation. Both events were held in outdoor venues to mitigate spread and allow distancing.
As the 2021 year closed out, the issue of face coverings flared up at a May board meeting were several parents expressed their strong feelings that students should not be masked. Superintendent Diane Allen said that if community data continued to trend in the right direction, she saw no reason that students could not be mask-free in the fall. Allen made the idea a reality in July announcing that masks would be optional upon the return to school.
But when COVID numbers in central Ohio surged in August, the district came up with a plan that would allow students to remain unmasked as long as numbers within individual schools fell below certain thresholds. This would allow some schools to be forced back to masking, while others could go without.
It only took one week of school for chaos to descend. Bunsold Middle School saw surging numbers and an entire class at Edgewood Elementary was placed in quarantine as the number of impacted students stretched into the hundreds. Edgewood and Bunsold eventually returned to a mask mandate.
Early in the school year the virus also hammered the district bus drivers and parents were asked to find alternative ways for students to be transported to school if possible. Delays and adjusted bus routes were the result of the staffing problems.
With surging case numbers, the board of education reversed its policy on masking during the first week of September, making masks mandatory inside buildings until late October when the mandate was lifted.
During the month of February, North Union schools were engaged in a hybrid model of instruction with Wednesdays as remote learning days. Students were required to wear masks in the schools and on buses as well as practice social distancing.
All students returned to in-person learning five days a week in March.
In mid-May, board of education voted to approve making masks optional, effective immediately.
At the time, Union County Health Commissioner Jason Orcena said school boards did not have the power to vote to remove face mask policies.
Although the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released guidance that fully vaccinated individuals did not need to wear masks indoors, Orcena said state officials made it clear that was not yet applicable to schools. He added that the governor’s office advised Ohio superintendents that masks must be required in school buildings and offices through June 2.
Masks remain optional at North Union Local Schools, but they are required on school transportation under federal regulations.
With the priority to have students engaged in the classroom, North Union has not offered remote learning during the 2021-22 academic year.
Superintendent Richard Baird said the school district employs mitigation strategies such as deep cleaning, air ventilation and social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.
If students experience any of the COVID-19 symptoms, they are advised to stay home.
Baird has encouraged the school community to get tested for the coronavirus or get vaccinated.
“If you’re willing, if you’re able, if you’re eligible, please get the vaccine,” he said. “If you need access to that vaccine, we can help you get access to that vaccine.”
Unlike many of its counterparts, Triad began 2021 in the classrooms five days a week.
Initially, while Ohio Department of Health guidelines were still in place, students and staff members were required to wear facial coverings and practice social distancing.
However, Triad did not continue its mask mandate into the 2021-22 academic year.
Instead, students were organized into pods in an attempt to limit the quarantining of close contacts to smaller groups. The district also continued to encourage social distancing when possible.
Triad was also affected by a surge in cases during the late summer and early fall, but cases among students and teachers were dramatically lower by winter.
The district, like many others, was hit by other side effects of the pandemic, including supply chain delays and staffing shortages.
Triad officials retained two permanent substitutes in an attempt to mitigate the issue, but also lowered education requirements and offered hiring incentives to draw more applicants.
The district did, though, receive a bit of good news toward the end of 2021.
Despite 2020 state report card data being less comprehensive than in years past, Triad administrators learned this year that their students scored above the state average in 18 of 20 areas.
Jonathan Alder students ended the 2020/2021 school year in a hybrid model. High school students attended school two days a week while elementary students attended half days. Masks were required for anyone in the buildings.
Prom and graduation were held outside. JA Communications Coordinator Monica Leichtenberg said it was important to keep participants safe, but also important “that they could experience these events and have some sort of normalcy.”
Alder was one of the few schools in the region to start the year with optional masking. That decision was short lived and in September the school board voted to require masks for students and staff in an effort to keep students and staff safe and in the buildings. The mandate lasted about a month, before it was lifted and masking became optional again. District officials said that by Christmas break, about 10% of students and 20% of teachers were wearing masks.
In November, voters, largely upset over the district following COVID protocols established by state and local health officials, ousted school board members Shannon R. Foust and Mary Jo Boyd, replacing them with Erica Detweiler and Sonia T. Walker .
Officials said that while masking was contentious in the community, at school board meetings and even among staff members, teachers and administrators have worked hard to make sure students never see that frustration.
Now, Leichtenberg says, the focus has moved to making sure students get caught up academically as well as socially and emotionally. She said students are almost two years behind in some areas. Officials said the district is working to look at students individually to assess and meet their needs.
In mid-January, Fairbanks schools began working toward having students back in the building full time.
“We phased that in,” said Fairbanks Superintendent Adham Schirg.
All district buildings returned to in-person learning, five days a week for the final marking period.
Prom had restrictions — participants needed to register with their groups and masks were required. Graduation, outside in the stadium, had a requirement for masks, “but it looked a lot like what a traditional graduation would look like,” Schirg said.
In June, the governor lifted the state mask mandate for schools.
“Since then, masking has been optional,” Schirg said. “tt has been highly recommended at Fairbanks, across all of our settings, but it has been optional.”
When students returned to school in the fall, they returned in person full time and they have stayed that way. Schirg said that in early November, there was an outbreak of cases in the fifth grade, “but that was really the only one we had.”
Schirg said one key to keeping the district operating is for students and staff members who are not feeling well to stay home.
“Symptom assessment is critical,” Schirg said. “The understanding that we are giving people permission to stay home is something we continue to push.”
He added that mitigation strategies like hand washing and encouraging students to wear a mask, “have never really gone away.”
The superintendent stressed that it has been difficult to balance the physical health and safety of students with the academic and emotional health of students.
“We know the toll all of this has taken on them,” Schirg said.
He said that COVID forced the district to shift some things and some timelines, but the biggest idea has been to focus on, “valuing small wins.”
He said helping classes meet in person, encouraging students, personally interacting with children, “these small wins really make a difference in time of uncertainty.”
“I am really proud of the work our entire school community has done,” Schirg said.
He added that he wants to make sure staff, students, parents and the community continue to celebrate progress.
“I do think there is still a lot of that uncertainty going into 2022 so we need to make sure we are not losing that focus,” Schirg said.
2. CHAOS IN JEROME TOWNSHIP
Under-the-radar meetings in Jerome Township were scarce in 2021, as the area saw the successful zoning of a new innovation district, tension surrounding public safety services, and rapid development that led to a federal lawsuit and months-long legal battle.
Droves of Jerome residents were present at zoning hearings throughout the year, overwhelmingly in opposition to proposed residential developments in the area.
Though most were approved by the Board of Trustees, residents consistently made their opinions known through referendum votes that struck down rezonings.
Developers and land owners responded by filing a federal lawsuit against the township, claiming that zoning in the area is “broken” and they were discriminated against and deprived of their rights by the township.
The township filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit and residents pleaded with the township not to accept a settlement from the plaintiffs.
Ultimately, though, a split vote from the trustees in December approved a consent decree that would effectively approve the rezoning and development plans of four contentious developments: Rolling Meadows, The Farm at Indian Run, The Homestead at Scotts Farm and Jerome Village Neighborhood 10 (VN-10).
As part of the agreement, Jerome Village Company, LLC will contribute $400,000 before Jan. 31, 2022 and $125,000 each year beginning in 2023 through 2032. The company will also pay the township an additional $1 million for the construction of a firehouse and equipment for the department.
The settlement will result in all future commercial development becoming a part of the Joint Economic Development District (JEDD) between Jerome Township and the City of Marysville.
The township also spent the majority of the year negotiating its public safety officer (PSO) contract with the Union County Sheriff’s Office.
UCSO currently provides four dedicated deputies that are split between Jerome and Millcreek townships, with Jerome footing 80% of the bill.
Union County Sheriff Jamie Patton approached township officials in early 2021 to request another PSO be added to their area.
While each trustee voiced support for the PSO program, some said they feel it is not a sustainable means to add increased safety services to the area.
They requested a county-wide staffing study that would determine how many deputies are needed and how many Jerome should be paying for in its area, but the county commissioners and UCSO staunchly rejected the request.
The three-year contract for four deputies – without a stipulation to complete a staffing study – was approved in December.
Jerome officials also spent months laying the groundwork and approving zoning for the Jerome Township Innovation District.
The 741-acre master planned business park will encompass the area south of Warner Road and north of the Union County/Franklin County line, between the CSX railroad tracks and Industrial Parkway.
The Innovation District is intended to attract clean, high-tech uses, advanced manufacturing and research and development facilities.
The district is a collaboration between the township, Union County and City of Marysville officials. The county maintains township infrastructure, like roadways, while the city is the township’s water and sanitary sewer provider.
Trustees have said they feel the Innovation District will accomplish two main goals: create revenue that will fund better infrastructure and decrease the tax burden on township residents.
3. HEALTH DEPARTMENT CONTINUES DOGGED RESPONSE TO VIRUS
The Union County Health Department entered its second consecutive year of emergency operations in 2021 and continued to adapt to the everchanging virus battle.
Even during encouraging stretches, local public health officials remained cautious and ready to respond to whatever the next phase of the pandemic might bring.
The end of 2020 brought the COVID-19 vaccine, which UCHD officials, staff and volunteers distributed through drive-thru shot clinics at the Union County Fairgrounds.
Through the first several months of the year, UCHD continued to focus heavily on its mass vaccination campaign.
With the vaccine came positive news, as Health Commissioner Jason Orcena reported in February that the number of actively ill individuals had consistently declined since a spike around the holidays.
Demand for the shot was initially so high that its online scheduler crashed while the health department was clamoring for more doses from the state.
Approximately 24,000 people got the shot at mass vaccination clinics from the end of December 2020 through mid-May 2021. Over 21 weeks at the Union County Fairgrounds, more than 60 clinics were hosted. Additionally, about 3,000 COVID-19 tests were administered.
As demand for the vaccine tapered off over the next several months, the health department continued to offer shots at smaller clinics in its offices and at “pop-up” locations throughout the county.
Union County Health Commissioner Jason Orcena expressed optimism in June, noting that the last three months of the county’s fight against the virus were largely positive.
That same month, public health orders from Gov. Mike DeWine that required facial coverings, social distancing and capacity restrictions were also lifted.
Though the situation surrounding the virus appeared rosier during the summer, UCHD prepared for another surge as students returned to fully in-person schooling, without many of the safety precautions that were present the year prior.
UCHD officials continued to meet with school administrators on a weekly basis with the goal of keeping students safe and in class as much as possible.
Still, the anticipated surge came to fruition during the second half of the year.
Orcena said the county began to see a surge in August that mirrored the pattern seen in 2020 – a dip in cases before numbers increased then spiked.
Compared to 2020, hospitalizations and deaths this year shifted toward younger people, as the vaccination rate of individuals who are 60 and older is extremely high.
While the health department continued to encourage residents to be vaccinated against COVID-19, their focus shifted back to testing in late 2021.
In October, UCHD once again began offering drive-thru testing clinics at the Union County Fairgrounds.
At-home tests also became a hot commodity, as the health department gave out thousands prior to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
The holiday season of 2021 was ultimately much like that of the year prior – high transmission of the virus leading to officials urging residents to take extra precautions and stay home if sick.
4. HOPE CENTER NEEDS NEW HOME
While a recent enrollment study provided good news for the Marysville School District, the same can’t be said for the Hope Center.
The school district made it public in December that the Hope Center, located in the former East Elementary School on Chestnut Street, would need to look for a new home.
Since 2011 the Hope Center, a faith-based conglomerate which serves community needs with space to provide free meals, clothes, furniture and personal needs items as well as free legal counseling, turoing and other services. It rents the space from the district for $3,500 per months plus utilities.
Exploding growth in the school district prompted an enrollment projection study late in the year. While the results of that study did not show the need for an entirely new building in the coming year, certain buildings would becoming pinches requiring additional space.
While it would cost about $14 million to get the East building usable as a school again, it would not cost nearly that much to renovate it into office space.
School officials announced a plan to renovate the existing district administration offices on Edgewood Drive into classroom space which could be used by the adjacent elementary school.
This would require the district administrative operations to be transplanted to the Chestnut Street building.
The total cost of the project was projected at a little more than $4 million.
Renovation of the Chestnut Street building would begin in August with renovation of the Edgewood Drive building slated to follow in December of next year.
Several people spoke on behalf of the Hope Center at a December school board meeting, asking the district to reconsider its plan.
Hope Center officials have pledged to continue the work of the facility and are currently looking for new accommodations.
The school district administration and board acknowledged that the Hope Center is vital to the community, but added that they are charged with spending tax money in a way that best facilitates the education of children.
5. SOLAR FARMS
The Union County Commissioners have proposed legislation that would prohibit future solar farms in the entire unincorporated area of the county and they want to hear from the public.
Several solar farms already planned for the area, however, would be allowed to continue.
The commissioners have set a “special session” for 7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb 22, 2022, “to consider” whether to create the restricted area. The meeting is scheduled to be held in the commissioners’ hearing room in the County Office Building, 233 W. Sixth St., Marysville, though officials have said that because of public interest, it could be moved to the building’s auditorium.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed legislation into law in July, which allows local authorities to limit wind and solar farms in Ohio, though it will likely not impact a pair of projects already proposed for the area.
The legislation, known as Senate Bill 52, allows county commissioners to create what it calls an “exclusionary zone” where certain solar and wind electricity generation facilities would be prohibited. Projects that are already in the power network’s new service queue, have received their system impact study from power networks and have paid the application fee by the effective date of the bill are grandfathered in.
The Ohio Power Siting Board approved Invenergy’s proposed project, Cadence Solar Energy Center, in the northern part of Union County, with another solar project pending approval, so they were grandfathered in and exempt from the new legislation.
In 2020, Invenergy and Acciona Energy each applied for permission from the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB) to construct solar energy projects in the northern part of Union County.
Cadence Solar Energy Center is a 275-megawatt solar powered electric generation facility. The company already has about 5,100 acres under lease in Union County. The majority of the land is south of Route 47, between Yearsly and Storms roads and north of Route 347. Officials said they expect to begin construction in the first quarter of 2022 and expect to be online operational and generating power by the end of 2023.
The Acciona Energy project, named Union Solar, is a planned 325-megawatt solar powered electric generating facility on about 3,500 acres near the intersection of Routes 31 and 739 in York and Washington townships. Construction of that facility is set to begin in the first quarter of 2022. Acciona officials said it could be scheduled to be in service by the first quarter of 2023.
A third proposed solar farm called the Samsung Richwood Solar Project is planned for 1,200 acres between Magnetic Springs and Richwood. The solar farm is supposed to be 250 megawatts of power. Samsung officials hope to have it online by 2024. Although Samsung officials have expressed interest in locating in Union County, officials have not filed a case with OPSB. Ultimately, the OPSB will either approve the project or deny it.
Samsung officials plan to hold informational meetings prior to the formal public hearing required by the board.
The three proposed solar projects would total nearly 10,000 acres in Union County.