Thalheimer photo

Elkhart Community Schools Superintendent Steve Thalheimer speaks to school board members about the corporation’s back-to-school plan during Tuesday’s meeting.

ELKHART — Elkhart Community Schools parents will have two options for their children when classes resume next month amid efforts to contain the coronavirus, district leaders announced Tuesday night.

By a unanimous vote, the school board approved the school re-entry plan, paving the way for the start of school on Aug. 13. School buildings closed on March 13 with instruction completed online.

The plan for re-entry offers two options: one offers some face-to-face, in-school instruction for students who can return to school and the other offers virtual instruction only.

The in-school instruction option will be two days per week: Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays. On the days when students aren’t physically attending school, they will be expected to complete e-learning activities. Fridays will be a designated e-learning day for all students in grades K-12, Superintendent Steve Thalheimer said in introducing the plan.

An online learning plan will be available for students with risk-factor health issues or those who have made the choice to learn virtually.

Thalheimer said the ECS planning guide was created using the guidance and expertise of several state and national resources, as well as a staff survey completed by 1,037 participants and a parent/guardian survey completed by 2,350 families representing 4,135 students.

Following Georgia’s Path to Recovery for K-12 schools, Thalheimer said Elkhart Community Schools is addressing the community spread of the coronavirus at the district in three levels:

The low/no spread is the traditional plan with schools open and following preventive practices.

Minimal/moderate spread could be traditional, full distance/remote learning or a hybrid of the two, which would have limited or staggered use of buildings and alternating schedules.

Substantial spread would mean back to distance/remote learning with either targeted closure, short-term closure or extended closure.

Of the three levels of spread, Thalheimer said the school corporation is currently recommending following the minimal/moderate spread path.

“Ideally we would love to be able to return 100 percent and we can wish for that all we want, but that’s not going to happen,” Thalheimer said. By following the minimal/moderate spread path “we know there are fears and concerns, but as we’re looking at data and things, the Elkhart County health officials are encouraging us to get back to school in some kind of fashion and this would be the best option.”

Safety adjustments

The district will provide two free washable masks to every student. Masks will be required on buses, when entering and exiting the school building when picking up food in the cafeteria line and during passing periods.

Within classrooms, student desks will be facing the same direction. Students will be discouraged from actively moving around the classrooms unless instructed by a teacher. If students can be seated 6 feet apart, they will be allowed to remove masks if they choose to do so.

Students will also be allowed to keep their masks on if they choose to do so unless specifically instructed otherwise by a teacher or staff member. If students engage in small-group work or discussion, they will be required to wear masks.

Teachers will use outdoor spaces as weather permits and large spaces, such as a gym or auditorium, when possible. Masks will not be required in spaces that are outdoors or with ample room for social distancing. Students will be discouraged from sharing personal items, such as pencils, crayons, markers, notebooks and iPads. Parents are asked to label items when possible.

Students who ride buses will have assigned seats and will be seated two students per seat at most. Siblings will be asked to sit together.

In the cafeteria, elementary students will have designated areas where they may eat with their class. Students will be distanced and allowed to remove their masks to eat. Middle school and high school students will be expected to socially distance. Hand sanitizers will be provided at each of the tables, school officials said.

The water foundation will be disabled. Students should plan on bringing labeled refillable water bottles to school, the plan said.

Other highlights from the plan include daily screening methods, a generally symptom-based method for school exclusion, procedures for enhanced sanitation and hand-washing/sanitizer use for students and staff.

The district will collaborate with the Elkhart County Health Department to trace contacts with confirmed cases of COVID-19 and will notify all families within the building through email if they are aware of a suspected or positive case in a building.

Public comment

During the public-comment segment of Tuesday’s school board meeting, nearly a dozen parents and teachers spoke out, with many expressing cautious support for the plan while others questioned whether an in-person instruction option is too soon.

Amber Kosar, a graphic design teacher at Elkhart Area Career Center, said although she’s anxious to return to a classroom setting with her students, she does not believe it’s the safest option.

“As a parent, I’m choosing a 100 percent virtual option for my children in their district and I know I’m not alone,” she said.

“EACC teachers who may have less students may have higher risks because we interact with over 1,200 students from 15 different school corporations, that means 15 different communities, but you still want us to teach in person,” she said. “Parents are concerned with their children being left behind, but the entire country is in the same boat. We can always recover a child’s academics, but we cannot recover a child’s life or the life of the educators, staff or family.”

Another teacher, Nakara Murray, who has two children who attend Elkhart Community Schools, said she believes in-person instruction of some kind is best for children and that being out of school has put a burden on her children’s social and emotional well-being.

“I deal with the public and at any point in time we can come into contact with any kind of virus,” she said. “So, although I understand the fear of some parents and families about coming back to school, we also need to think about the mental illness going on with our children from being out of school.”

Angela Williams, a teacher with the district’s PACE preschool program, said she’s not sure the social distancing measures will work in her classroom.

“At PACE, we have special needs students all day every day,” she said. “Many autistic children do not understand about 6 feet apart. They like to run off, climb and we, as staff, will have no choice but to touch these children. We also have children that are going to come in that we’re going to have to change diapers and we cannot social distance when we are changing diapers and chasing kids around and taking them off shelves.”

She welcomed the school board members, fellow staff and attendees to come to her classroom and offer tips on how she can abide by rules to keep everyone safe.

“Give me ideas on how to keep my children safe, parents safe, also myself safe so when I go home, I can still be a good mother to my children, a good wife to my husband and a good daughter to my mother who I care for at home,” she said.

Some suggested that face masks should be mandatory at all times.

Elkhart Education Foundation’s executive director Ashley Molyneaux said nearly 50 percent of staff at ECS are at high risk and that fewer people talk about staff when discussing reopening schools.

“Schools are not just made up of students, they’re made up of people who care for them every single day and whose lives will be at risk,” she said.

She mentioned how the foundation was able to run a Summerscape Day Camp safely and how wearing masks played an integral part in that accomplishment.

“We had one staff member that we share with ECS that tested positive for COVID-19 and the reason it was contained to that person and we didn’t have an outbreak among 250 students is because all day every day students and faculty and everyone in our building are wearing masks,” she said. “This can’t be up to the discretion of a teacher or principal or whoever whether students can take their masks off. It’s too dangerous.”

Jeff Miller, who submitted a statement, read by his wife, Julie Tyrakowski, expressed his support for a return to ECS buildings in August.

“No plan the school system presents will be universally accepted or embraced,” he said in the statement. “ECS has already established there will be options for everyone, including 100 percent online for those who aren’t comfortable with an in-person environment. I want to return but also understand there are those who don’t, and that’s fine. Whatever works for each individual is OK. I won’t judge anyone’s opinion or feelings.”

“There is no way to eliminate risk, but we can minimize it. ECS has shown the capability to put thoughtful, careful and precautionary methods together, as evidenced by the commencement ceremonies held in June. I have faith that our district leadership values safety and will have processes to do as much as possible to mitigate dangers in every area.”

The decision

Before approving the measure, board members made an amendment to revisit the plan in 45 calendar days to see how the option is working and to stay on task with communication.

Thalheimer said he plans on giving updates at every meeting to remain transparent.

“It’s very important that we communicate what this is and communicate expectations and execute to the best we can by working in partnership and making sure that we keep our eye on it,” he said. “Is it (the plan) going to be perfect? Hell no; there are going to be issues and pictures of kids without their mask on social media, it’s going to be what it’s going to be. But what we decide to do about it and how we respond and adjust and how we fix it is what’s going to determine it.”

Within the next couple of days, parents and guardians will be emailed a selection form asking whether they intend on sending their child back to school for some in-person instruction or online. Responses are due July 28.

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