ELKHART — Elkhart County students can go back to in-person instruction at the beginning of the new school year, despite hearing Thursday that they would have to wait weeks.
Schools planned on resuming in-person education in some shape or other in the upcoming school year until county Health Officer Dr. Lydia Mertz told superintendents Thursday that schools should go virtual until Sept. 28. That resulted in significant backlash, as hundreds of protesters showed up outside the Health Department building Friday afternoon.
The sudden change also got the attention of the Elkhart County Commissioners, who went to Mertz with a request for a different solution, according to Commissioner Mike Yoder.
Mertz then sent out an announcement in the late afternoon, saying that schools can resume with in-person instruction, starting Aug. 10.
"All K-12 schools in Elkhart County, public and private, are authorized to start the 2020-2021 school year (“School Year”) by providing in-person instruction or instruction via remote learning according to their COVID-19 Plan to Reopen," her order issued Friday said.
However, through Aug. 24, all school-sponsored extracurricular or co-curricular programs must cease in-person meetings and activities that cannot achieve and maintain 6 feet social distancing. During the school year, those programs will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis within each school.
According to Mertz, her decision Thursday was based on an uptick in new cases at a testing site in Elkhart County. But Friday, she learned that the uptick was due to residents from other counties being tested at that site, she said.
Mertz was also in contact with Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box and Indiana State Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver, in order to compare Elkhart County with other parts of the state that are reopening schools.
"I'm pleased to report that Dr. Kris Box agrees that our schools have strong COVID-19 Plans to Reopen," Mertz said.
According to Yoder, the commissioners applied some pressure to Mertz to have the decision to start the year with e-learning changed. He said the commissioners were surprised by Mertz's decision and received many phone calls from upset constituents.
"All three commissioners have talked with all the superintendents, we've had conversations with Dr. Mertz, we've had conversations with the state," he said.
Yoder and the other commissioners would like to see a decision-making process that is more transparent than it has been in the past week, he said. That way, parents, teachers and administrators will know what the factors that go into these decisions are.
The Health Department never made a public announcement about pushing back in-person education, but the substance of the Thursday meeting was shared by some schools.
Though some of those residents tried to get the attention of Mertz by protesting outside the Health Department building in Elkhart, Mertz might not have seen them. As a safety precaution, Yoder said Mertz had been asked to work from home Friday. The commissioners later decided to close the building for the week at 3 p.m.
Some residents at the protest and on social media say they have lost their confidence in Mertz. That sentiment is not shared by Yoder.
"I understand that perspective, but the commissioners work with her every day, and we understand a little bit more about what's going on in the background. The general public is just seeing these announcements and the orders and are not fully aware of the complicating factors that are going on in the background. So yeah, I have confidence," Yoder said.