Phil Downs wants Southwest Allen County Schools' parents, students and staff to think of themselves as belonging to one big team as classrooms reopen next month to families choosing that option.
“We want kids back in the building, but for that to happen, we all have to play safely together,” Downs, the superintendent, said during a board meeting Tuesday. “Understand that while I may feel a certain way about some of the restrictions, if we're going to be good teammates, sometimes you sit on the bench and sometimes you're in the game, but you always have to support the team.”
The 7,700-student district plans to begin the 2020-21 academic year Aug. 5 with students learning at school and at home. Downs described the online options – which require a semester-long commitment – as e-learning for elementary students and a new virtual school for secondary students; the latter will become a permanent district offering.
The school board unanimously approved the reopening recommendations, which follow 11 guiding principles. They include social distancing when possible, mask requirements, no school visitors, and increased cleaning and disinfecting procedures. A handbook for families will be released by the end of the week.
SACS' approach is similar to plans that neighboring Northwest Allen County Schools discussed Monday. Fort Wayne Community Schools will announce its “return to learn” plan at a news conference this afternoon, and East Allen County Schools' re-entry plan will go before its board July 21.
SACS consulted insurance companies, its attorneys, the health department and federal guidelines in developing its two-tiered approach, Downs said. Parents also were surveyed.
“Our primary goal is to mitigate the risks and uncertainty as much as possible, and provide great education and meet the needs of both working families and families with health concerns,” Downs said.
More than a dozen people, including SACS employees, sat in the audience. Many questioned Downs on busing, lunch, high school passing periods and music class.
Downs acknowledged that school will be different. For example, he said, a choir teacher might stand on the auditorium stage while students spread out in the seating area.
One woman was particularly concerned about masks and seemed comforted to hear that masks will be important at SACS. Facial coverings will be required on buses, cafeteria lines, hallways and as needed in classrooms. Forgetting or losing a mask shouldn't be a problem.
“We have bought spares upon spares upon spares,” Downs said.
Downs said he couldn't describe procedures for when a student or employee tests positive for COVID-19 because it is situational. He also acknowledged strategies could change.
“We can have all the plans in the world, but until the little chaos systems that are your children show up, we're not really going to know how it plays out,” Downs said.
It's critical that employees and students stay home when sick, Downs said. Parents will be required to check children daily for symptoms.
He is concerned – and the community should share this concern – that the district already doesn't have a lot of substitute teachers and substitute bus drivers.
“If adults start to go down, we're going to start running out of people to put in their place,” Downs said. “And at some point, the board of health could come and tell us we need to pivot to e-learning.”
He reiterated the sports metaphor: “We all have to be doing our part.”