GOSHEN — Local school leaders seem to have done their homework and studied hard on creating plans to reopen for the upcoming school year amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, from the Elkhart County Health Department’s perspective. Though some private schools have not sent plans into the department.
The county health board discussed a schools report during their meeting Thursday night. County Health Officer Lydia Mertz spoke to the board from the County Administration Building in Goshen, while board members attended online via a video streaming platform.
The schools report showed the six public school systems in the county submitted plans for the health department’s review and incorporated recommendations. Private schools — such as Bethany Christian Schools, St. Thomas the Apostle, St. Vincent de Paul, Elkhart Christian and The Crossing — have also submitted reopening plans or are working with the health department on one.
Mertz praised efforts by local school systems to be ready to reopen as safely as possible.
“The schools have really worked hard, done a lot of investigation and talked to other school systems in other states, and really thought things through very carefully. I’m amazed at how thorough and complete their plans have been. And how eager they are to get it right; to do whatever they have to do to get it right,” Mertz told the board.
The private schools that have not yet submitted plans are generally smaller local schools, Steve Olsen, a county attorney said. He pointed out that an Indiana executive order says all schools should provide a reopening plan, advising them to work with the health department on one. Olsen also said department staff are reaching out to those schools to encourage them, and to provide information and guidance.
Mertz added she doesn’t expect plans to come from Amish schools, but the department is working with them on coronavirus information. She said the department is not trying to change their schools, but there is a need to make sure everyone in the community is safe.
For schools with students attending in person, Mertz noted students must wear masks if they cannot keep socially distant, such as moving around in a classroom or walking in a hallway. Some schools intend to have schedules where half the students will be in the building two days out of the week, while the other half is in the other two days out of the week, and students will have online instruction the days they’re not attending in person.
“They really have things thought out very well,” Mertz said.
Plans also focus on measures for remaining open and preventing closures. Staying open is the primary goal, and Mertz said she believes most people realize that.
“We don’t have a set of black-and-white criteria for closing all the schools. We would have to have a pretty large viral spread to do that. And I think this community would work hard at trying to keep that from happening,” she said.
Board member Josi DeHaven said she believes plans should hinge on complying with wearing personal protective equipment and maintaining hygiene, which could be challenging if schools are crowded.
“I would support reopening if we can, if we can figure it out,” DeHaven said.
Mertz believed elementary school students, for the most part, would be compliant with PPE and hygiene routines as they see teachers and peers doing the same. She thought high school students could be a more random factor based on the wide spectrum of knowledge and emotional maturity among teenagers.
“If it would become in teenagers a popular thing to wear a mask, then they’d all do it. If somehow it becomes unpopular, it would be almost impossible to make them do it. So, they have to be approached the right way,” Mertz said.
She added the state health department has experts who specialize in marketing to adolescents who can work with that age group and provide information on the issue.
“High schoolers, they can be your best ally. They can really go out of their way and be so helpful above and beyond the call of duty. You know how they are. And then on the other hand, they can do the craziest things ever,” Mertz said. “We want to somehow get them going the right way. They could have a big influence on the whole county. If they all decided everyone’s going to wear a mask, it’d be done.”
The report Thursday also showed several of school reopening plans included roadmaps for summer athletics and extracurricular activities. The report noted some schools have since had cases of COVID-19 arise among coaches and athletes with an emphasis on Concord High School needing to shut down football practice for quarantining earlier this month.