DUNLAP — For Vanessa Velie, returning to her classroom at Concord East Side Elementary School in August after a six-month hiatus would be ideal.
But after reviewing Concord Community Schools’ recently released reopening plan – which will offer part-time, in-person instruction as an option – the third-grade teacher is worried that social distancing won’t be feasible in classrooms and the overall safety of staff and students amid surges in COVID-19 cases.
“I’m in fear of not knowing what to do when the whole system crashes and everyone ends up getting (the coronavirus),” Velie told the school board at Monday’s meeting. “High-schoolers are at a higher rate of getting it right now in our county, so to put them all in a great fishbowl together seems a little strange to me.”
By a unanimous vote, the school board on Monday night approved a “hybrid” plan that allows students to take two days of in-person instruction in addition to e-learning days or they can choose a virtual-instruction-only option.
Newly appointed Superintendent Dan Funston, who stepped into the role on July 1, said the top three priorities the district officials paid close attention to when creating their reopening blueprint was the well-being of students, staff and the community.
“We know that our students are best served when they’re in the school, especially our young kids,” he said, “when they’re able to see a teacher and we’re able to do those well checks and provide the services that we know goes beyond academics in providing for our students.
“Also want to make sure that we’re paying special attention to the well-being of our staff – this includes classified staff and all of our staff. So we believe that while not perfect, we have laid out a blueprint here that pays special consideration to those things.”
The plan is similar to an approach taken by Elkhart Community Schools, which was approved by the district’s school board last week, where students can take entirely virtual classes or receive some face-to-face classroom instruction.
Under the two days of classroom instruction option, half of the Concord students will take classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, while the other half will go back on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays will be designated e-learning days for all grades, according to the district’s plan.
Nearly a dozen parents and teachers alike spoke out during the public-comment session of the school board meeting, the majority of which shared a sentiment similar to Velie’s.
In addition, some teachers say they are nervous about returning because of concerns about infecting family members. Others expressed frustration by the lack of clear guidance from officials about preparing for returning to school. And for some, it’s about child care if their students are back at school only a portion of the week.
Jami Brouillette, a third-grade teacher at Concord East Side, has two children at East Side; one going into second grade and the other in fourth. She said balancing her schedule as a teacher and a parent under the district’s plan is going to create havoc, which she suspects will be a similar dilemma for other working parents.
“As a parent, if my only option is to send my kids for two days a week and then I’m supposed to somehow juggle my schedule to now having to be a teacher for the other three days, I don’t see how a) that’s going to happen and b) how that’s going to provide my kids or students any sense of normalcy or routine,” she said.
“I don’t want to quit my job, but I honestly don’t know how you can expect parents to do this,” she told the board. “Where will the students go those other three days? If it’s not safe for them to come to school, then where will they go? Do you honestly think that all these parents are going to be able to quit their jobs and stay home? Because I don’t.”
Following Georgia’s Path to Recovery for K-12 schools, the district is addressing the community spread of the coronavirus at the district in three levels.
• 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 going back to distance/remote learning with either targeted closure, short-term closure or extended closure.
Of the three categories, Concord has opted to align its hybrid plan with the minimal/moderate spread category.
“The heart of this plan is the idea of social distancing,” Funston said. “We believe that by splitting our student body in half that as a school we’ll be much more able to social distance than if every student showed up on day one.”
Each student and staff member will receive two cloth masks at no cost. Per mandate of the Elkhart County Health Department, upon entering the building, students will wear a mask except when seated at their desks (only if they can properly social distance) or eating. Students will be required to wear a mask while at school except when they are seated in their classroom and able to social distance, the plan states.
Terry Schoenherr said his wife, who’s a teacher at Concord Junior High School, has a compromised immune system and believes masks should be worn at all times to help limit the chances of spreading the virus.
“I would like to see a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to wearing masks in school, meaning if you’re not wearing a mask you’re not here,” he said. “It’s been proven by the CDC that masks are a huge deterrence in spreading this virus. So for me, that’s very important.”
Lani Kieft, a parent and teacher at Concord East Side, said she doesn’t believe the in-person option offers adequate safety for students and expressed support for the virtual-only instruction.
“As a teacher, we know what goes on in the building,” she told the board. “My husband is also a teacher and there’s no way we would put our children at risk of sending them to school right now. As much as we love our teachers and our school, I can’t take that risk with my precious child. So, I want you to know that a vast majority of teachers are not sending their kids to school for good reason and that’s something that should be a red flag for all of us.”
She also voiced concern about a back-up plan should the virus spread across the school buildings.
“It’s not a matter of if, it’s when,” she said of the potential spread. “We know by data that things are going to happen. I know my kids are going to be home safe because luckily I have that choice. But if we lose one precious child or staff member, that’s too many. And if we have to live with the fact that we went forward with a plan that’s too dangerous, that’s going to be a big problem.”
Laura Livrone, president of the Concord Teachers Association, expressed her appreciation to the school board and administrative team for their hard work in developing what she believes will be a viable plan for returning to school this fall.
“A lot of people are not going to like the plan, no matter what the plan is,” she said. "From a teacher’s point of view, of course, we want what’s best for our kids, but we’re also concerned about safety. It’s also a practical matter. If we can keep our teachers and our kids well, then things won’t fall apart. I tell teachers every time I get the chance that they can’t work as hard as they did in the spring. The virtual option is going to be better than it was in the spring, but we have to take care of ourselves because now we’re going to be out in the world and we can’t be worn down when we’re in the world where COVID-19 exists.”
After the public-comment segment, Funston thanked everyone who spoke for their feedback. He also emphasized that the district will continue to work with local health and state officials as well as neighboring districts to evaluate the conditions in Elkhart County and make adjustments to the plan as needed.
“We will be revisiting this more as a cabinet, and things can change daily,” he said. “While right now we’re going under the (minimal/moderate spread) category (County Health Officer) Dr. Lydia Mertz has said she will give us better information in terms of what category we should be under at the end of July, so nothing is final.”
Following the board’s decision, families were sent a student learning selection form asking them to select a learning option for their child, as well as questions about transportation, before/after school care and more. The form must be completed by midnight on Friday.
Concord Community Schools plans on reopening on Aug. 12.