ELKHART — School officials say the decision to close schools amid the novel coronavirus didn’t come lightly and it’s getting mixed reactions from local families.
The school closing announcements of all seven of Elkhart County’s public school corporations came in waves Saturday just hours after local officials held a news conference to offer assurances to the public that they are prepared for when the virus does reach the area and to ease anxiety over the related illness, COVID-19.
The school corporations announced closing schools for up to four weeks including spring break, with some starting as early as Monday.
No confirmed cases of the pandemic have yet been reported in Elkhart County.
Asked about the decision to close the district hours after the press conference Saturday, Elkhart Community Schools Superintendent Steve Thalheimer said the district’s intention all along has been to follow the advice of the Elkhart County Health Department but going to the press conference he already had the school community split about keeping the school open.
“With the governor limiting crowd sizes, sports events canceled, theme parks closed, and other states and school districts closing their schools, people continued to question why schools remained open,” he said. “That is why I asked the question I did at the press conference about that very issue.”
After the conference, Thalheimer said he discussed remaining open with his leadership team and received input from various stakeholders, which ultimately led officials to conclude the need to be cautious and close.
“Many people reported that the uncertainty created by the lack of adequate testing in Indiana is just too great for people to trust keeping school open,” he said.
Concord Community Schools followed a similar approach in their decision to close schools. Effective Monday, all CCS buildings will be closed to students until at least April 13, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The message we heard Saturday during the Elkhart County Health Department press conference hinged on the importance of social distancing to avoid the spread of germs. The nature of our collaborative learning environment makes this a challenge,” said Interim Superintendent Denise Seger.
“Following Saturday’s press conference, our Concord administrative team met and shared feedback they’d received from our staff and parents,” she continued. “Many of those individuals were concerned about the limited testing kits available for coronavirus (COVID-19) and urged us to help slow the spread of the virus by closing our buildings. Out of an abundance of caution, we determined it was in the best interest of students and staff to close our buildings.”
For ECS, Monday will be a normal school day, followed by two days on Tuesday and Wednesday with no learning expectations as teachers prepare lessons for the first day of eLearning on Thursday.
“We announced on Saturday to allow families the time to make arrangements,” Thalheimer said. “As of right now, we are engaging in eLearning through April 3, which is the two-and-a-half-weeks prior to the spring break, which was already on the calendar.”
For parents needing support taking care of children, Thalheimer said, the Boys and Girls Club and local churches and ministries have indicated an interest in helping. As those plans develop, the district will be communicating those out.
“For parents who will be home with their children, we recommend a routine for each day in order to balance free time, chores, and learning,” he said. “As we move to eLearning, we will roll out an eLearning website we are working on with information to help parents, students, and staff.”
Meals at ECS will be offered similar to what is available during the summer food program. Thalheimer said the district is looking to utilize many of the same sites, and food service operations personnel are finalizing those plans as well.
“We will communicate that out within the next couple of days, and it will be on our eLearning parent resource page,” he said.
At Concord, employees will distribute pre-packaged meals from the parking lot at three school buildings each Tuesday and Friday beginning March 17 and continuing through at least April 13 (excluding Spring Break April 6-10).
Meals will be distributed between 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Meals are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
This is a drive-thru meal service. Parents will stay in their vehicle and employees will deliver packages of food to the vehicles. Per USDA regulations, students and a parent/guardian must be present to receive the free meals.
Meals are available for pick up at the following locations:
• Concord High School, 59117 Minuteman Way, Elkhart
• Concord East Side Elementary, 57156 C.R. 13, Elkhart
• Concord West Side Elementary, 230 W. Mishawaka Road, Elkhart
Thalheimer said the district is exploring ways to provide child care services to its staff by surveying the need and then perhaps utilizing paraprofessionals or support staff who need employment with that child care role.
“As we determine what eLearning supports may be needed, we might look at deploying that support to locations around the district or city as a way to keep social distancing yet still provide logistic or tutoring support,” Thalheimer said. “I have also seen on social media and heard about churches and individuals offering to meet with students to support their learning. This really involves us working together in ways that we have not before.”
“The current difficulty for us as a district is coordinating these offers for help while we are intensively trying to ramp up capacity of our staff for this instructional model,” he continued. “We know during this time it is just as much about supporting students emotionally and looking out for their well-being in this change as it is learning. Our student services department, counselors, and social workers will be on the front lines of sharing information to support families.
Closing schools shouldn’t affect the school calendar year, according to Thalheimer.
The district is utilizing two of the waiver days granted by the governor to start the eLearning process. This gives the corporation flexibility of 18 days for the remainder of the school year, Thalheimer said.
“Utilizing eLearning days for the remainder of time before spring break allows us to stay on track for the required number of instructional days,” Thalheimer said. “Following spring break, we will balance the appropriate number of in-session days (if deemed safe) with eLearning and waiver days to finish our school calendar.
“As of now, this would not require any change to summer vacation,” he continued. “Depending on how long the governor keeps restrictions on crowd size in place or what other steps the federal or state government may take, this would impact events like spring sports, prom, and graduation ceremonies. However, if students keep up with eLearning work and sustain the grades to earn credits, there would be no impact on a student’s ability to graduate high school.”
Many parents said they believe the districts made the right call in closing down, but they had mixed reactions about the effect it will have on students and families.
“Having my children home isn’t a big deal to me, the only issue I have is the eLearning,” said Savannah Housley, a parent of children who attend Goshen Community Schools. “I have no patience as it is with having to teach them things that aren’t how I was taught. Plus, three days a week of it, I go nuts on one day.”
Another Goshen parent, Crystal Miller, said the closures will be difficult for given the limited time to prepare for them.
“And with everyone wiping out the shelves (at grocery stores), it makes things even harder to prepare,” she said.
Erin Wilson, a Middlebury parent, said she and her husband work opposite shifts so the closures won’t affect their lives much.
“We work opposite shifts for these very reasons,” she said. “I work first shift job and he works a second shift.”
Tiffany Ritter, a Goshen parent, said she’s concerned that her day care isn’t looking at closing.
“Payments will still be expected or we have to use or vacation time of two weeks and still have to pay a half week,” she said of the day care. “I’m going to be very upset if I work from home with my oldest and the youngest gets the virus from day care and then spreads it to the house because people are being forced to send sick kids so they can still work.”
An Elkhart parent, Crystal Metzler, said, “I think the hysteria is getting out of hand. But, I guess we will just stay home and do our eLearning days and hopefully they will all be able to go back to school after spring break.”