ELKHART — All schools in Elkhart County are authorized to open for in-person or remote learning, according to an order signed Friday by Elkhart County health officials.

The announcement came a day after numerous county school superintendents announced they had a phone conference with Elkhart County health officials earlier in the day and, upon recommendation from county Health Officer Dr. Lydia Mertz, online learning would be the safest course of action for all students in the county.

“Online learning will continue through September 28, 2020, unless pandemic conditions improve significantly enough to safely reopen schools. At this time, Goshen Community Schools (GCS) will start the year on Tuesday, August 11, 2020 with all grades in Course V, which is online learning from home,” a post made Thursday on Goshen Community Schools’ Facebook page stated.

When asked Thursday evening if the health department would be making an announcement about the in-person school delay, Mertz responded via text message, “A lot of rumors are flying. The Elkhart County Health Department has no announcement. When we do have announcements we make them through the usual channels. Thanks.” Further clarification was requested, but no response was received Thursday.

Around 4 p.m. Friday, Mertz issued a news release and a new order via the health department’s Facebook page. In the statement, Mertz explained that Thursday’s decision to meet with school superintendents was based on a high positivity rate at an Elkhart County COVID-19 testing site and an increase in the county’s seven-day moving average positivity rate.

“Following this meeting, rumors spread throughout Elkhart County about the closing of schools,” Mertz stated in the news release. “I fully understand why Elkhart County superintendents responded and provided information to their students, parents, and staff.”

However, after the phone conference with school officials, Mertz states in the news release, she was able to obtain more information from the Indiana State Department of Health about the testing site that had a high number of positive tests. Apparently people testing positive there were not residents of Elkhart County, Mertz stated in the announcement, and the positivity rate was lower than originally thought.

“I was also able to communicate directly with Dr. Kris Box, Indiana State Health Commissioner, and Dr. Lindsay Weaver, ISDH Chief Medical Officer, regarding the current Elkhart County circumstances and compare the same to other counties that have successfully reopened schools to in-person education. I also discussed the existing COVID-19 Plans to Reopen in place throughout schools in Elkhart County with Dr. Kris Box,” Mertz continued. “I am pleased to report that Dr. Kris Box agrees that our schools have strong COVID-19 Plans to Reopen.”

NEW ORDER

“The Elkhart County Health Department understands that the public and private K-12 schools in Elkhart County have recently made significant efforts to transition from in-person instruction to instruction via remote learning as a result of preliminary concerns identified by the Elkhart County health officer,” Friday’s order by Mertz stated. “The Elkhart County Health Department understands and supports all public and private K-12 schools that choose to open with remote learning instruction as they work to transition to in-person instruction.”

The order also stated all school-sponsored extracurricular or co-curricular programs must cease in-person meeting, activities and events that cannot achieve and maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet during the event.

“‘School-sponsored extracurricular or co-curricular programs’ means all programs offered by or otherwise supported by a public or private K-12 school including, but not limited to, all athletics, band, choir, performing arts, clubs, organizations, and other programs,” the order continued. “During the School Year, continuation of school-sponsored extracurricular and co-curricular programs will be evaluated on a case by case basis with each school and individual program being evaluated independently. If events and circumstances arise that result in a school having concern that their program causes students to experience a greater risk, beyond the existing everyday risk, of COVID-19 infection, then the school may contact the Elkhart County Health Department to seek a formal recommendation regarding potential temporary or permanent closure of the school’s program as a result of the existing circumstances.”

Several rallies were held Friday at the Elkhart County Health Department building off of Oakland Avenue where between 700 to 800 people protested Thursday’s announcement.

SCHOOL RESPONSES

Following the announcement by Mertz on Friday, a number of Elkhart County school superintendents issued statements responding to the new order.

GOSHEN SCHOOLS

Among the local superintendents to issue responses Friday was Steven Hope, interim superintendent for Goshen Community Schools.

“The GCS back-to-school plans were abruptly changed on Thursday (August 6), based upon information received from an official at the Elkhart County Health Department (ECHD). However, that information has now changed,” Hope said in the statement. “Yesterday, GCS acted quickly, based on the information we were given. GCS is the first local school to start classes, and at that point, the first school day was only four days away. This afternoon (Friday, August 7, 2020) in conflict with what we were told yesterday, the ECHD released Public Health Order No. 04-2020.”

Given the new order, Hope noted that GCS still plans to start school virtually on Tuesday and will continue to meet virtually through Friday.

Following the first week of all-virtual classes, GCS will then revert back to the school corporation’s original reopening plan approved by the Goshen school board during the board’s July 27 board meeting, Hope explained.

Under that plan, students will return to school as follows:

• Students in kindergarten through fifth grade will return to school Aug. 17 in Course III, which means they will have shortened days — 7:50 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. — with eLearning for specials.

• Students in grades six through 12 will return to school Aug. 17 in Course IV, which means that students with last names starting with A to L will attend in-school classes on Monday and Tuesday, and have virtual classes on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Students with last names starting with M to Z will have virtual classes on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and attend in-school classes on Thursday and Friday.

“The number one goal of GCS administrators is to give our students and staff a safe return to the classroom,” Hope said. “We do not anticipate that this plan will change again, so we will move ahead with a short, one-week course of all-virtual learning, and then will return to our original plan, with K-5 students in Course III and students in grades 6-12 in Course IV.”

Hope noted that more information regarding athletics, marching band, and other co-curricular activities may be announced at a later date.

“For now, GCS students and athletes may continue their co-curricular activities as they are scheduled,” he added. “We sincerely appreciate your support of our students and staff, as we know the last few days have been stressful and confusing. We pledge to do everything in our power to make this school year a good one for the students of our community.”

CONCORD SCHOOLS

Dan Funston, superintendent of Concord Community Schools, acknowledged that the order issued by Mertz on Friday was different than the information the school corporation had been provided on Thursday, and apologized to the district’s parents and students in a statement issued late Friday afternoon.

“Earlier this afternoon, the health department gave us good news that we may reopen in-person or virtually,” Funston said in the statement. “With this news, we will move ahead with plans to open under the Hybrid A/B format on Wednesday, August 12. More information can be found on our website at www.concord.k12.in.us.”

Funston noted that athletic and other extracurricular and co-curricular activities at CCS will also resume, following strict social distancing guidelines outlined by the health department.

“We know that this has been a confusing 24 hours, with conflicting messaging coming from various organizations and we apologize for any inconvenience this has caused,” he added. “As always, our goal is to ensure the wellbeing of our students and staff. These are challenging times, but please be assured we all are working hard to do the right thing for our community.”

WA-NEE SCHOOLS

In a statement posted to Wa-Nee Community Schools’ Facebook page Friday afternoon, WCS Superintendent Scot Croner announced that in accordance with Mertz’ new order, WCS plans to continue with its current reopening plan and will permit students to attend school Aug. 17 through the means their families previously selected — either remotely or in person.

“On behalf of our school system, I am pleased to learn that the opportunity to offer both in-person and remote learning will be safely available to our students,” Croner said. “Please, please, please continue to support our efforts to keep our schools open for our kids. If you or your student is showing symptoms of COVID-19, please stay home. If you have been in close contact (15 mins) with some one that has tested positive for COVID-19, please self-quarantine for 14 days. If you are able and it is necessary to go out into the public, please maintain six feet of physical distance when possible. And lastly, please continue to wear your facial coverings. If we continue to work together we can overcome this challenge.”

MIDDLEBURY SCHOOLS

The following statement was posted to Middlebury Community Schools’ Facebook page late Friday afternoon:

“We told you yesterday that the Elkhart County Health Department (ECHD) said we had to do virtual education only until September 28. We were told today that the information and data they based their decision on was flawed. The Health Department just released a statement and public order that states we are okay to open in-person just the way we planned. We knew our original plan was what is best for our children and it still is. We will begin school on August 12 as originally planned. Our athletic programs will be allowed to move forward but with specific social distancing constraints in place until August 24. This mandate will affect each sport differently. Your coaches will provide you with specific details as soon as possible. We look forward to seeing your children in person on Wednesday!”

FAIRFIELD SCHOOLS

Fairfield Superintendent Robert Evans also issued a brief statement Friday afternoon in response to Mertz’ order.

“Fairfield Community Schools is looking forward to seeing our students on Wednesday, August 12th,” Evans said, noting that students will be able to start in-person instruction as planned. “Our reopening plans remain unchanged. We are evaluating other extra-curricular activities to see if any changes need to occur to comply with the new Health Department order.”

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