GOSHEN — With COVID-19 at the forefront of their minds, superintendents from all seven of Elkhart County’s public school corporations issued a joint statement this week announcing their initial plans for how students will return to school.
In beginning the letter, the superintendents of Baugo, Concord, Elkhart, Fairfield, Goshen, Middlebury and Wa-Nee schools describe how they have been meeting weekly with the Elkhart County Health Department staff, the Elkhart County Commissioners and the mayors of Elkhart, Goshen and Nappanee seeking guidance.
“The Indiana Department of Education recently released guidance on the reopening of schools in their IN-CLASS report,” the letter states, referencing the IDOE’s COVID-19 school reentry guidelines released in early June. “The Elkhart County public schools are working collaboratively with this guidance to create reopening plans that ensure the safety of all students.”
According to the letter, all public schools in Elkhart County plan to start the new school year on their scheduled start dates, and will be offering some combination of both in-school and online classes.
“Students returning to classrooms will do so with procedures approved by the Elkhart County Health Department,” the letter states. “Online options will be available for students who cannot or are uncomfortable returning to school. A detailed reopening plan will be available from each school soon.”
In the meantime, the letter outlines a general list of procedures each school corporation will be implementing as part of their reopening plans. They include: self-screening requirements; cleaning and disinfecting requirements; required use of masks and facial coverings by teachers and students; updated bus transportation guidelines; social distancing requirements; and ongoing identification, tracing and reporting of COVID-19 cases.
“Please expect to see these reopening plans in the coming weeks,” the letter concludes.
BACK TO SCHOOL
As currently planned, the start dates for each of the county’s seven public school corporations are as follows:
• Goshen Community Schools will start the new school year Aug. 10;
• Concord, Fairfield and Middlebury schools will start classes Aug. 12; and
• Baugo, Elkhart and Wa-Nee schools will start classes Aug. 13.
GOSHEN PLAN COMING
Speaking to the reopening plan for Goshen Community Schools specifically, GCS Deputy Superintendent Steve Hope noted Wednesday he anticipates having an official back to school plan ready for presentation at the Goshen school board’s July 13 meeting.
According to Hope, the plan will include a number of options for returning students in addition to traditional in-person classes, the particulars of which will be outlined at the meeting.
“Goshen Community Schools will also have a completely online learning option for any parent who wants or needs such an option for their student,” Hope added of the forthcoming plan. “The online learning option will include live teaching through teleconferencing, self-directed online learning, regular communication with parents and regular access to counseling services.”
On June 5, the IDOE released its 2020-21 COVID-19 reentry guidelines for state schools, titled “Indiana’s Considerations for Learning and Safe Schools," or IN-CLASS.
According to the IDOE, the guidelines were developed in partnership with the governor’s office, the Indiana State Department of Health, the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, the Indiana High School Athletic Association, and IDOE’s Reentry Advisory Group, comprised of practitioners and professional organizations.
“IN-CLASS provides a guide of considerations to inform schools and districts as they approach planning and preparing school operations surrounding COVID-19,” the document states. “Local school boards, led by superintendents and administrative teams, should work with appropriate stakeholders to focus on the immediate needs to prepare for school operations under the current pandemic.”
At nearly 40 pages long, the IN-CLASS document outlines an exhaustive list of recommended procedures and guidelines for school corporations to consider as they prepare for students to return for the new school year.
A sample of the many recommendations outlined in the document include:
• Health protocols for schools;
• Social distancing recommendations in the school environment;
• Extra-curricular and co-curricular reentry guidelines;
• Special education guidelines;
• Student transportation considerations; and
• Indiana State Department of Health virus mitigation strategy recommendations.
“The health and safety of Hoosier students, school staff and communities is priority one. Providing students with a quality education is critical and therefore it is crucial we offer considerations focused on getting students back in the classroom in a safe manner,” State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said of the guidelines at the time of their release. “Considering the many unknowns associated with COVID-19, we also recognize the importance of alternative learning opportunities. We appreciate the thoughtful and collaborative spirit in which IN-CLASS was developed.”
To view the entire document, visit https://www.doe.in.gov/sites/default/files/news/june-5-class-document.pdf.
VOICE OF CONCERN
While the letter from the county’s school superintendents references options for both in-person and online learning for returning students, there are some who are questioning whether district staff and teachers will also be given that same opportunity to work remotely.
Among them is Paige Pobocik, a Goshen resident who teaches English at Goshen High School.
Pobocik, who spoke on the topic before the Goshen school board Monday, even went so far as to suggest GCS should scrap in-school classes altogether and begin school completely online in order to best protect both students and their teachers.
“I do not believe it is a safe idea for Goshen schools to open our doors to students in August,” Pobocik told the board. “I understand that this is not a decision that can be made lightly, and I understand that we as the public are not aware of all the things that go into this decision. However, our first priority should be to our students, and opening our doors in August is doing a disservice to them.”
In explaining her reasoning, Pobocik said she does not believe the school corporation will be able to adequately enforce proper social distancing among students.
“Social distancing cannot take place in a classroom where my largest roster is 55 students. I cannot separate those students safely in the room I am currently in,” Pobocik said. “How are we supposed to handle students in the halls during passing periods?”
Pobocik also raised concerns about how students who fail to abide by the new mask-wearing and social distancing rules will be disciplined, and who will be required to provide that discipline.
“I love my students with my entire heart, but there has always been an issue of students not wearing their ID cards at Goshen High School. Do we expect students to also wear masks without us prompting them?” Pobocik asked. “Are teachers expected to write students up for not wearing their masks? Will we have an administrator at GHS who is specifically focused on mask-related issues? If students inevitably refuse to wear masks, how are we supposed to handle those disciplinary issues?”
Speaking to her personal situation when it comes to in-person classes, Pobocik noted that she lives with two people who are immunocompromised, and questioned whether teachers and other school staff in similar situations will be offered the option to work from home, as students will.
“What options are being put in place for staff members who cannot, or are uncomfortable returning to school?” Pobocik asked. “I live with two people who are immunocompromised. Am I supposed to put them at risk because I am not being provided alternative options to my job? Am I supposed to put double the work and time into my planning alternate assignments, recording and uploading my lessons, emailing students and parents of students who are not completing their e-learning work, on my same salary with this lack of respect for teacher and staff safety?
“It is completely irresponsible for us to allow students to stay home and complete work, but force staff members to come expose ourselves to hundreds, or in the high school’s case, thousands of students’ germs with no alternative,” she added. “I urge our administration and the school board to seriously consider beginning our year fully online. It will not be easy. I openly admit that. However, for the health and safety of our students, their families, staff, and staff members’ families, I believe the only option is beginning our year fully online, and reevaluating mid-semester or at our winter break whether or not we will be able to safely reopen our doors to allow in-person learning.”
While no action on the topic was taken by the board Monday, board president Bradd Weddell did ensure Pobocik her comments will be taken into consideration when finalizing the school corporation’s back to school plan.
“This is not a decision I think any of us are taking lightly,” Weddell said of the situation. “We appreciate your input very much.”
As they work to finalize the district’s back to school plan, GCS officials have also created an online survey asking parents about their preferences for how students should return to school in the fall.
As an example, one of the questions included on the survey asks parents to choose from five options related to their desired method for student attendance, with the available answers reading:
• I would like my child to come to school everyday with social distancing guidelines in place.
• I would like my child to come to school with social distancing guidelines only if there are fewer students in attendance.
• I would like my child to attend school with other students on some days and stay home with online learning some days.
• My child will not be attending Goshen Community Schools for the 2020-21 school year.
• I would like my child to do online learning only.
The survey also questions parents about transportation preferences and how they plan to get their students to and from school.
To view the full survey, visit buff.ly/2NGP1ux.