ELKHART — A surprise announcement by several Elkhart County schools superintendents Thursday night that, on the recommendation of Elkhart County Health Officer Dr. Lydia Mertz, in-person school would not take place until Sept. 28 for all Elkhart County schools set off a parent and educator maelstrom.

Shortly after the announcement, made at about 5 p.m., two protests were organized to take place Friday outside the Elkhart County Health Department off of Oakland Avenue in Elkhart. Another one took place at the Middlebury Community Schools administration building that afternoon as well.

Seven hundred to 800 protesters peaceably assembled on the health department lawn waving signs, marching and calling for Mertz to change her mind and allow schools to reopen in person, according to their individual reopening plans.

Mertz, in the meantime, had been talking with the Indiana Department of Health’s Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lindsay Weaver regarding Elkhart County’s circumstances, Mertz stated in a letter to the public she issued with her order Friday afternoon.

With Box saying that Elkhart County’s schools “have strong COVID-19 plans to reopen” and Mertz giving a “thorough review of all relevant data and information,” the health officer issued an order Friday afternoon that allows schools to reopen in person according to their health department-approved plans.

Since there was no explanation until Friday afternoon, protests still took place. Parents for Our Schools and Save Our Elkhart County Sports called for in-person school and sports to resume.

Parent Jason Shannon, of Goshen, lives in the Concord school district where his three children had been attending school — until he learned about Concord’s back-to-school plan.

He has a first-grader, a fourth-grader and a freshman. In the spring, the eLearning was bad, he said, adding, “We did the majority of work for our kids.”

“Their education just didn’t meet our criteria,” Shannon said. “So our approach really was, who’s going to go full time and what are the options and we found NorthWood was going full time and it was worth taking that two-hour commitment of driving them every day to get that.”

It was a hard decision because his daughter is on the travel softball team. “We were looking forward to playing ball at Concord,” he said. “So she had to make a decision on a transfer to a place we don’t even know. But the education is even more important than playing the game. We want to see her get educated in a way that will help her thrive in the future.”

But with the idea that all schools would be virtual to begin the year, Shannon said his family was looking at homeschooling and removing from the school system. However, he believed NorthWood would be the most likely to go back if they did resume in-person school. He feels NorthWood understands the importance of in-person education, he said.

Nick Butler, a parent in the Concord system, said of Thursday’s announcement, “This is against everything we are as Americans: our traditional values, our education — everything. Everybody goes and marches in protest what they believe in ... We’re here today because this is crap. It’s not about us; it’s not about who’s going to be president in a couple of months; it’s not about who can’t be president in a couple of months. It’s about that little boy right there,” he said pointing to his son. “And that’s it.”

Butler said that as a parent he is willing to make any sacrifice to make sure his kid has the best. “And to be quite honest with you, let’s go back to the ‘50s, ‘60s or even ‘70s, late ‘80s, if you were to put this on that generation or any of those, they’d tell you to pound sand. So guess what? This boy’s either going to go to school five days a week at 12 years old or he’s going to go to work five days a week. That’s just the way it is. That’s the American way. Nothing’s free.”

He added that “the devil is the author of confusion. Let’s remember that. Because I think our leaders are more than a little confused right now.”

Jimtown parent Tara Hudson said she has three children who attend Jimtown schools. “It’s just important for their socialization skills, to be with their peers and to have learning in the classroom setting” she said. “The eLearning is so easy to muddle through and not learn anything. I think the last couple of months that they did the eLearning, my now junior in high school said he didn’t learn a thing.”

Promises by educators that this year’s eLearning academies will be better gives Hudson no assurance. She works full time and can work from home, but said a lot of parents don’t have that luxury. “Now they have to be a parent and a teacher and a wife, and the list goes on and on,” she said.

Her daughter, Peyton, a fifth-grader at Jimtown Intermediate, said, “I just want to see my friends.” She said she was really looking forward to the school year even though they would have to wear masks.

Parents and students from around all of Elkhart County’s school corporations had similar feelings.

April Szymanowski and her husband, Michael, have three children who attend Fairfield Schools. They had concerns about how much ground their children could lose through eLearning.

One of their children is in special needs and eLearning would not offer him what he needs.

Two of their boys are passionate about football. “Last year was really fun for me,” Troy said. “I want to be in it again.”

Michael Jr. has managed to increase his grades from straight Fs when he was in Elkhart schools to As and Bs at Fairfield, his dad, Michael Sr., said.

Michael Jr. said eLearning was not for him. “I can’t learn anything from it at all,” he said.

The Szymanowskis were also concerned for Amish students who do not have the internet. They would have stacks of paper dropped off to them, but would not have any other way for instruction.

Northridge students Anna Vaughn and Alexandria Lucas are both seniors this year and on the soccer team.

“I’ve waited four years for my senior year of soccer season,” Vaughn said. “So, I just wanted a voice to come out here. … I don’t think it’s right that we can’t have our season, especially seniors. This is our moment to really play.”

Lucas added, “I think we should go back to school because we need our education and a lot of people can’t learn online by themselves. I know for myself, I tried it and it didn’t go well for me.” As for soccer, she said, “We waited four years for this and it’s just getting taken away from us and we were already practicing. And the day before we knew about it, we got on varsity and the next day we can’t even play.”

Middlebury Schools parent Aaron Scholl, who has five kids in that district, said he thinks parents should have the freedom to choose to be in school or online.

“I think the biggest reason we are out here is we just want freedom,” he said. “Freedom for the parents to choose whether they want to send their kids or not send their kids to school. That’s at the base level. We want to have the freedom and opportunity to be responsible.”

He said everybody was out there to “advocate and appeal” to get back to school. Just two days before, he said, everyone thought it was all systems go. But then Thursday, “within a 24-hour period, all the work the administration, the teachers, parents, surveys, months of preparation essentially was gone in a 24-hour period. And we’re wondering why that would be.”

That answer came later in the day, with Mertz’s explanation of the county’s seven-day moving average positivity rate, which appeared to be increasing. But, apparently a site that had a high number of positive tests, skewing the rate, had people testing positive who were not from Elkhart County. So, the positivity rate was actually lower than originally thought.

Sheila Selman can be reached at sheila.selman@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 240311. Follow Sheila on Twitter @sselman_TGN.

Sheila Selman can be reached at sheila.selman@goshennews.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 240311. Follow Sheila on Twitter @sselman_TGN.

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