ELKHART — The county’s health officer is giving a thumbs up to area schools and their athletic programs as they plan to resume activities in the weeks ahead amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Improving infection rates in the community and solid safety plans by school administrators led to the decision, Dr. Lydia Mertz said Friday in a letter.
Because of this control of the spread of the virus, and the work the schools have done, I recommend they open for in-person instruction as they have planned,” Mertz said.
The mitigation measures put in place are designed to make the schools as safe as possible, she said.
“There remains a small risk, just as there is when children are in the grocery store, playground, or a friend’s house,” the letter said. “However, the advantages of in-person instruction outweigh that small risk at this time. I encourage most students and families to take advantage of this opportunity.”
Students who may be at high risk of severe disease if exposed to the virus, or living with a family member who may be at high risk, can obtain their education via the online plans the corporations are providing, and avoid the small chance of contact with the virus at school, she said.
School officials have spent months learning how to get the students back in school safely and determining what would work in their buildings, by working the Indiana State Department of Education, State Department of Health and the Elkhart County Health Department to see what the recommendations are, what the county’s level of virus activity is, and how to keep staff and students best safe.
In the meantime, Elkhart County had been a “hot spot” for the novel coronavirus for weeks, increasing the risk of school openings and presenting concerns for the safety of students and staff, and the community at large.
“However, late last week, and continuing this week, we have seen the positivity rate start to decline,” Mertz said Friday. “Experience from other hot spots shows that once the viral spread starts to decline, it continues downward rapidly.”
Elkhart County seems to be following that pattern, she said. The number of positive tests, the hospitals’ capacity to care for the sick, and the county’s on-going ability to do testing and contact tracing will continue to be monitored.
Mertz urged school officials to consider guidance from the Indiana High School Athletic Association to begin sports.
“Around the state, there have been cases of viral spread through teams,” she said. “It has usually come not from practices, but activities before and after practice: carpooling, the team going out to eat after a workout, over to a teammate’s pool to relax, etc., and not physically distancing, or using masks. These activities, along with the team meals often planned and prepared by their families, make this type of activity high risk for viral spread. If sports are to be successful, everyone involved has to recognize that their behavior off the field determines whether the team can play at all.”
Voluntary summer workouts have had restrictions to limit the chance of spreading the virus. Girls golf practice began Friday with other fall sports scheduled to start in earnest on Monday, also with restrictions.
Elkhart Community Schools Superintendent Steve Thalheimer said the district will go forward with its two options for full online learning or the hybrid A/B day plan as approved by the school board July 14.
“We are pleased to be able to proceed with the plan that people have worked so hard on,” he said. “We feel our plan finds that balance between in-person instruction, which is so important, and reducing the number of students in the buildings. We will continue to monitor and receive guidance from the health department as we go forward and adjust as necessary depending on changing conditions.”
Baugo Community Schools will begin the new school year on Aug. 13 with students in their classrooms, though a virtual learning option is available for families who do not plan to send their children to school in person.
“We are excited to welcome our students, faculty, and staff back to campus and we continue to refine our mitigation plans to best provide for as safe a learning environment as we can,” Superintendent Byron Sanders said in a letter to the community.