ELKHART — Elkhart County schools reversed course twice last week on plans to reopen for the school year, but school leaders are pressing forward optimistically as they revert to their original goal that involves a mix of in-person and remote learning.
Schools had initially planned on resuming in-person instruction in some form in the upcoming school year until county Health Officer Dr. Lydia Mertz suggested in an informal meeting to superintendents last Thursday that schools should go virtual until Sept. 28.
Although the health department never made a public announcement about pushing back in-person education, some school districts were prompted to share the news from Thursday’s meeting.
“We had fully intended to abide by waiting until we received that draft order from the health department, however, we also desired to be transparent with our community,” said Dan Funston, superintendent at Concord Community Schools. “The conversation happened around 1 p.m. on Thursday, and just a couple hours later it was well-known and out in the public, so we didn’t want to leave our families out in the dark."
Elkhart Community Schools Superintendent Steve Thalheimer said he also assumed the district was switching to online for six weeks based on the conversation the superintendents had with Mertz, however, was hesitant to make any official changes until a written public order or recommendation was issued from the health department.
“Our leadership team felt that it was important that we had all the information before making any changes, especially for a district our size,” Thalheimer said. “So, when I was asked by some people in the media last Thursday evening, I said that we would be assuming that we’re starting online, but I wasn’t making anything official until I had the written order in hand.”
Despite last week’s hiccups, Thalheimer said the district will continue with its original plans with the only change being the school’s start date. Student instruction will now begin next Monday instead of on Thursday.
“Last Thursday, my food service director said that we had a large produce order in, and if we were going to go online-only, we should probably cancel the order,” Thalheimer said. “So given the indications that we had up to that point, we went and canceled that produce order to save several hundred dollars and then when we tried to get that produce order back in place, for this Thursday, we weren’t able to reinstate that for our school lunch program, which necessitated the delay to Monday.”
Kerry Mullet, president of the Elkhart Teachers Association, said the mixed messages received last week from the health department caused a great upheaval to the whole community. Although she doesn’t believe the decisions were done to intentionally cause chaos and trauma, it’s still what many teachers, students and community members experienced.
“But as always, the teamwork and perseverance of Elkhart Community Schools staff is inspiring and we’ve quickly refocused and resumed our preparations for the start of the school year,” she said. “On a positive note, starting student instruction on Monday, Aug. 17, instead of the original date has enabled us to have additional time to plan and prepare.”
Thalheimer offered a similar sentiment.
“Last week’s events were chaotic and frustrating, and where it seems to be that we’re changing our mind and don’t have our act together is frustrating because we really are trying to be deliberate and follow the advice that we’re given by the health department,” the superintendent said. “So, the frustration and anger in some instances get placed on us, and I’m sorry for those frustrations that people have and I’m very sympathetic for that, but, again, we didn’t race into making a decision and in many instances, I’ve heard from other people the deliberateness that we took and how we tried to wait for the information before deciding what to do, in many respects, was appreciated by people.”
He said he believes the hybrid approach to reopening is the district’s best plan.
“With the number of students that will be in the building, we can (reopen) pretty safely and make sure that we’re trying to strike that balance of meeting students in person while also following the guidance that we’ve received from health officials and the CDC,” he said.
At Concord Community Schools, Funston said the flip-flopped decision last week resulted in some backlash but asserts the district is prepared to reopen on Wednesday.
“Since our last board meeting, we’ve worked really hard with our teacher association and our teachers and we have a strict mask policy coming back and we are coming back slowly with half the kids, so I think our staff, while some want to be virtual and some want to be back full time, appreciate that we’re taking precautions and moving slowly,” he said.
Parents who were unhappy with last Thursday’s announcement to keep their children home until late September organized a protest Friday attended by hundreds
Protest organizer Katrina Miller, a mother of three children who attend Fairfield Community Schools, said she’s glad schools moved to their original plan that allows students the option of going back to school.
“I think in-person instruction is important because of the social interaction and being with teachers, too,” she said. “Parents aren’t trained to be teachers and I think students should learn in-person.”
Elkhart’s Tanzie Nielsen, a parent with two children who attend Elkhart Community Schools, said both her sons are enrolled in the e-learning-only instruction. She said initially she and her family agreed to in-person school for their youngest son, Rogan, who will be a freshman at Elkhart High School, because they believed the precautions in place were adequate.
But after much consideration, and knowing that masks will not be required in every classroom at all times, except for eating and drinking, she opted for what she believes is the safest learning option. She also expressed displeasure in the abrupt reversal by the health department.
“I’m very concerned about masks not being required in classrooms at all times,” she said. “School personnel and others keep referring to CDC guidelines and I did not find anywhere in CDC guidelines where it says masks can be removed. It's a very blurry language where there’s room for different types of interpretation. So, to say they are following CDC guidelines is misleading because it’s wishy-washy at best.”