Schools consider options as 2020-2021 school year is a month away

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 As the Switzerland County School Corporation is just over a week away from its postponed graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2020; and is just over a month away from the start of the 2020-2021 school year, the school board on Monday night approved a comprehensive plan compiled by a team of school staff and officials led by Superintendent Rod Hite that lays out how the schools will re-open.

  As of now, teachers will report for their first day on Monday, August 10th; while the first day for students will be on Wednesday, August 12th.

  As the schools continue to monitor and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hite on Monday night laid out the plan, which includes traditional classes and also a second option for those students who may be in homes that might be considered “high risk” — from having a parent or someone who lives in the home to have a job that would expose them to COVID-19; or the student themselves may have medical issues that makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

  Central to the re-entry program approved by the school board on Monday night is the option for students to be a part of an online school through Switzerland County School Corporation.

  “When they (parents) first log in (to register students this coming week), it will give them a disclosure page of the two options,” Hite said. “The people who should look at the virtual option are those people who have children who may be immune deficient or in an at-risk category — or possibly their parents work in a long term care facility or nursing home that would require them to be at risk. Those parents may want to explore that on-line option. The other parents, if they choose so, can pick that, but they limit any and all extra curriculars except for graduation and National Honor Society.”

  Hite said that once parents elect one of the two options, the system will then take them into the enrollment process.

  “So at that point we’ll know how may are going online and what grade level, and what their schedule needs to be,” the superintendent said. “Those who are coming back to school, we’ve planned for class sizes so we can start enrolling them with teachers, those sorts of things.”

  The superintendent said that once the corporation does enrollment through the month of July, the school corporation will have a good idea of the staffing requirements that will be needed for the virtual school in time for the beginning of classes on August 12th.

  Superintendent Hite wants everyone — students and parents — to understand that being a part of the virtual school and what everyone knows as e-learning days are not the same thing.

  “There’s going to be a hybrid approach — different ways of doing it,” he said. “There will be little camera segments that are taken of the actual class and loaded into Google Classroom, so they’ll get to watch the teacher give directions. They’ll have different teachers. Some of them will still have the same core teacher videos clipped in; and they’ll have a support teacher there to help them online; and they will get a full day’s work delivered — including their rotations and elective courses via virtual; and they’ll be required to do all that course work, it won’t just be homework.”

  Hite said that making sure students — in traditional classrooms and in virtual school — have a full work load is important to moving forward as students.

  “When we wrapped up last school year, a lot of it was review and the teachers had had those students for 29 or 30 weeks,” he said. “This time it’s a new group of students. One, they’re getting to learn that new teacher; and two — they’re learning all new information. They’ve moved to that next grade level or that next course section. So it’s much more rigorous and it’s not to be compared to e-learning. It’s a true online school.”

  So with the option of being in the online school, Hite said that it’s the preference of the corporation that parents choose to send their children to traditional school next month.

  “Yes, unless they’re in that high risk category. I completely understand and I want the student to be safe and I want them to feel safe, and that’s why we’re also going to have that window of time for course changes at the beginning of the school year,” Hite said. “There’s about a two week window, so if a student comes to school and they just don’t feel safe — whether it be riding the bus or in the cafeteria or whatever else, we’re going to allow them to go to the online option, but that online option is not for everybody. If you look at online schools across the nation, their graduation rates are just terrible; and it’s because kids have a lot of distractions when they’re not in school, and they don’t have the same support mechanisms.”

  Because social distancing is an issue for students is the reason for being a part of the online school, Hite said that having students in the online school but then coming to school for extra curricular activities and being a part of sports teams doesn’t allow for that distancing, which is why the only two exceptions for student participation if they choose to be a part of the online school are participating in graduation ceremonies and earning induction into the National Honor Society.

  Hite also noted that Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb has pledged that student funding coming into school corporations for the coming year will not be reduced, so having students come back into traditional learning settings is not a decision based on finances.

  “We don’t really see the benefit — socially, emotionally, academically — I really don’t see the benefit of a parent keeping their child home unless there’s a medical or anxiety-based reason for that student to stay home,” Hite said.

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  “Next week, we’re going to do an online registration, and we’ve changed our billing process to allow for online payments, so we’re syncing the systems up now. Once we get it all down it will be a 100-percent online enrollment process this year,” Hite said.

  Because students still have possession of their computer devices from last year, much of that roll out has already occurred. Hite said that the corporation has kept tech support open throughout the summer so that any student who has had an issue with their Chromebook can have the device repaired — either by dropping the device off at the school, or a school official will come and get the device for service.

  “We’ve been able to update them and keep them maintained,” the superintendent said. “They will check any device when we get back if there’s been an issue with it.”

  Hite said that kindergarten students use iPads rather than Chromebooks, and since this will be those student’s first time in school, measures have been taken to ensure they have the resources they need.

  “Those iPads have arrived, and through kindergarten jump start, the principals are calling those parents and asking them to come an pick up those iPads,” Hite said. “Also, our incoming first graders have their old iPads, and we’re doing a summer exchange program for them to get their new Chromebook.”

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  So, when students enter the building on August 12th, what should they expect?

  First of all, Hite wants to stress that the smooth re-opening of the schools and the continued traditional operation of the schools depends on parents being diligent in looking for signs of illness in their child and also in other people in the home or who come into contact with the child.

  In the official policy for re-opening, if any of the following conditions apply, children should stay home:

  • if the child is experiencing a fever of 100.4 or higher;

  • if the child has a cough; or shortness of breath; or difficulty breathing;

  • if the child has chills or repeated shaking with chills; body aches and fatigue;

  • if the child has a headache, sore throat, new loss of taste or smell;

  • if the child has GI symptoms, such as abdominal cramping or diarrhea.

  At school, everyone will also see some changes to limited contact that it not socially distanced.

  Hite said that no parents or non-school personnel will be allowed in the hallways. Parents may drop their child off at the front doors, but the child will be taken to the classroom by a school employee. Likewise, when a child is being picked up, parents will wait outside the front doors or in the entry way while their child is brought to them.

  Teachers will open their classrooms upon arrival so that students can move from the hallway into the classroom. Breakfasts will be “grab and go”, limiting the amount of time that students are in central areas.

  As for lunches, Hite said that additional lunch times have been added at the high school and middle school to reduce the number of students in the cafeteria at a given time; and in the elementary schools seating will be spaced to ensure social distancing.

  The superintendent also noted that the meal program being run this summer through the school corporation will continue through August 15th, and once that concludes, students in the online school will have boxes delivered twice a month — each box containing 10 meals; while students in the traditional school will have the regular system. Hite said that the free meal program for grades K-8 that began last year is still in place; and that in order to reduce contact, this year, every student in grades K-12 will be assigned a lanyard that they will wear in the cafeteria and will scan the card on the lanyard as they go through the line. High school students will be able to put money on their account electronically — there will be no cash accepted in the lunch line.

   In each classroom, Hite said that students will not be required to wear masks, but it will be encouraged — especially at times when the students leave the classroom and enter the more public areas of the school. Drinking fountains will not be available this year, but water stations are being installed — again, to limit contact and possible exposure. Teachers will be wearing masks, and teachers are also being given the additional option of wearing a face shield.

  Students coming to school on buses will also see social distancing in terms of seating, with family members sitting together in assigned seats. Students will remain in those seats both going to school and coming home from school. Sanitation measures will be taken in the buses between arrival and departure from school.

  Hite also said that he expects a rise in parents bringing their children to school rather than putting them on a bus. For those parents, the superintendent has one request: Please be patient.

  “There’s going to be a large number of parents, I believe, who are going to drive their children to school,” he said. “That means we’re going to have some really long lines. We’ve already talked to the sheriff’s department and the police department to let them know that we may need some assistance until we get a really good system down to get kids in and out of the cars safely and into the school. When these kids are being dropped off, be patient — but nobody is to walk their child in. We’re going to have people greeting the cars and bringing the students in — and pick up is going to be the same way.”

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  And if a child or a staff member tests positive for COVID-19?

  “It depends on the health officer’s notification to us,” Hite said. “Even through the summer we’ve had positive cases throughout the community, so a community positive case doesn’t necessarily directly impact the school; but if have a student-positive case that comes back to us from the health department, or we have to report it to the health department — we’ll have to close.”

  Hite said that such a closure would typically be anywhere between two and five days, giving staff the time to go through and properly clean the building and the buses; and also it gives the school time to do some contact tracing. Hite noted that the Governor has hired 500 people to help with contact tracing; and that the corporation will have seating charts on the buses, in the classrooms, and in the cafeterias so that if a person or student tests positive, their movement as to where they were at certain times will be available so that others who may have come into contact with them can be notified.

  “We will simply provide those seating charts to health officials,” Hite said. “The health department will be the ones who will contact anyone who came into contact and may need to be tested. Those tests right now are 48 hour turn around times, we’re hoping to get to a more rapid test. Then it’s up to the health officer, depending on how much and how extensive the exposure has been, as to how long we have to close.”

  Hite said that if a closure does happen, students would automatically go to the e-learning system to continue their school work until they can return to the classroom.

  Because of student from all four schools having interaction due to riding on school buses and changing buildings for classes at the middle school and high school and other activities, a positive test in one building will result in the closure of all buildings.

  “We want to make sure we are safe in all capacities,” the superintendent said. “But this is fluid, so everyone should expect changes as we go. We make the best decisions we can with the information that we have at the time. We’ve made the best health decisions we can based on the advice of our county health officer; and we’re making the best educational decisions we can, knowing what we might encounter; but once we start encountering different scenarios, there may need to be changes just to keep things operating properly.”