Megan GreulichApril 5, 2021

On April 1, 2021, the Ohio Department of Education (“ODE”) released much-anticipated guidance regarding remote learning options for the 2021-22 school year. While legislative action to address continuation of remote learning options for the upcoming school year remains uncertain, ODE’s guidance outlines the options that exist under current law for districts wishing to continue remote learning options for students. These options will remain once the Remote Learning Plan option, which was created to address challenges associated with the Covid-19 pandemic during the 2020-21 school year, ends.

ODE’s guidance – available here – addresses four options that currently exist under Ohio law, including (1) alternative schools, (2) blended learning, (3) credit flexibility, and (4) the innovation education pilot program. Each option carries with it different procedural requirements for implementation, and districts should be aware that the remote learning options available under these programs will not provide the same level of flexibility as exists under the current temporary remote learning plans. ODE’s guidance includes a comparison chart detailing the general information about eligibility, required components, and impacts of each option, but districts are encouraged to work with legal counsel to determine which option is most appropriate to accomplish district goals. There are a few key points to note about the available options.

Alternative Schools

Authority for establishment of alternative schools is set forth under Ohio Revised Code Section (RC) 3313.533, which requires adoption of a board resolution addressing required components set forth in the statute. While alternative schools are an option for providing remote learning, they are structured to serve a limited student population, including students who are on suspension, having truancy problems, experiencing academic failure, have a history of class disruption, exhibiting other academic or behavioral problems, or who have been discharged or released from the custody of the Department of Youth Services. While this option would allow for remote learning for students falling within these groups, it does not provide a remote learning option that can be made available to all district students.

Blended Learning

Authority for establishment of blended learning is set forth under RC 3302.41 and Ohio Administrative Code Rule (OAC) 3301-35-03, which require submission of a blended learning declaration to ODE and adoption of policies and procedures as outlined in the Rule, which must be submitted with the blended learning declaration. By definition, blended learning requires a combination of school-based learning and remote online learning, and as a result, does not provide an all-remote option. There is, however, no limitation on the amount of remote versus school-based learning that must occur under a blended learning model.

More information on blended learning and access to the blended learning declaration form are available here. This year’s submission deadline for blended learning declarations is July 1, 2021. As a result, districts wishing to move forward with this option will need to develop required policies and procedures to submit to ODE with the declaration form by that date.

Credit Flexibility

Credit flexibility is addressed under RC 3313.603 and OAC 3301-35-01. Districts already should have policies and procedures in place addressing credit flexibility, which serves as an alternative option for earning graduation credit through personalized plans for each student. While this provides a remote learning option, it does not provide the same one-size-fits-all approach  permitted by temporary remote learning plans. Credit flexibility requires development of customized plans for each participating student and monitoring of the student’s progress on his/her plan. Additionally, credit flexibility cannot be the sole instructional delivery method for a student.

There also are a number of other important considerations associated with implementation of credit flexibility. For example, potential impacts on athletic eligibility requirements and district obligations related to the use of credit flexibility by students with disabilities should be considered in plan development. ODE provides a number of helpful guidance documents regarding credit flexibility, which are available here, in addition to its web conference series on the topic, which can be accessed here.

Innovation Education Pilot Program

Authority for implementation of an innovation education pilot program is set forth under RC 3302.07 and OAC 3301-46-01, which  allows a district to submit an application to ODE proposing an innovation pilot program. The Rule provides that “‘innovation means a new, experimental or disruptive educational approach that is developed based on an identified need and seeks continuous improvement in student achievement or student growth,” and lists the specific items that must be included in a district’s application, including, among others, exemptions from specific statutory provisions or rules that are necessary to carry out the program. It is important to note that this option requires the written consent of any applicable teachers’ union to be submitted to ODE along with the district’s application.

ODE has the authority to approve or deny innovation pilot program applications, and this option must be renewed each school year. Additionally, there are limitations on the statutory exemptions that can be proposed through innovation pilot program applications. These limitations are addressed in ODE’s comparison chart.

Regardless of your plans, it is important to work with legal counsel to determine which approach is most appropriate to meet your district’s goals and to ensure that all procedural requirements are met in pursuing the selected option(s). We will continue to keep you updated on any remote learning option developments as they occur. Please reach out to us here.

Megan Greulich is an attorney at Walter | Haverfield who focuses her practice on education law. She can be reached at mgreulich@walterhav.com or at 614-246-2263.