The Journal Gazette
Sunday, May 24, 2020 1:00 am

Reading, writing and REOPENING

Two months into lifewith COVID-19, schools still have more questions than answers

Chris Himsel

Gov. Eric Holcomb recently announced he will soon be sharing guidance about whether schools will reopen in the fall

The impending guidance will help us finalize plans, but local school leaders are not waiting for guidance from the state to begin our preparations. When we closed schools in March, we did so only after exhausting all options to remain open. When we reopen, we will do so only if we can do so safely.

First, I want to thank all who supported our teachers and other employees who tirelessly redesigned ways to continue engaging and supporting our students – from learning activities for those with and without access to broadband internet to how we provided meals to our students most in need.

We believe, and always have believed, face-to-face, in-person learning activities are better than remote learning activities. However, because of remote learning, we made the best of an unprecedented situation.

Despite its constraints, remote learning allowed us to continue engaging children in instructional activities and supporting them through ongoing interactions with their teachers and peers. Additionally, remote learning allowed schools to help our community flatten the curve and slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

As school leaders contemplate how and when to reopen schools, we quickly realize the number of details to contemplate and resolve is complex and mind-boggling. Because of Dr. Deborah McMahan's leadership and the collaborative spirit of participating local experts from the Allen County Department of Health, Parkview Regional Health, Lutheran Health Network, and Indiana University Health, we have received invaluable support and information to guide our response to COVID-19.

As I discuss ideas about coexisting with COVID-19 with colleagues throughout Indiana and other states, I am constantly reminded of how blessed we are in Allen County to have medical and public health experts who willingly and actively assist our community in developing a path forward. From my perspective, due to their leadership, willingness and commitment to collaborate, Allen County is light-years ahead of other locales.

Recommendations from medical and public health experts evolve as new information becomes available. Consequently, our plans are evolving and continually in need of updating. Decisions about when and how schools will reopen will likely not be finalized until the end of July or beginning of August.

However, a consistent theme we have continually heard from our local medical and public health experts is that personal responsibility is critical. To make any level of reopening a success, as a community, we must be willing to stay home when we are sick, be able to develop and implement practical social-distancing measures adaptable to school environments, frequently wash our hands, and frequently clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces.

Regardless of when or how we reopen schools, our preparations will continue to be guided by:

• Making decisions based on facts provided by our local medical and public health experts. We are not being swayed by inaccurate, incomplete, out-of-context or unconfirmed information shared through social media and other forums. Our decisions will be made with the intent of minimizing health risks while maximizing our ability to provide healthy and safe learning environments for the children we are blessed to serve and the dedicated employees who serve them.

• Believing face-to-face, in-person learning activities are more effective with the recognition that remote learning can be a viable, though limited, alternative.

As we consider potential options for moving forward, we must also consider the conditions within which they will be implemented. For example:

• We serve children who are diagnosed with underlying health issues that place them at higher risk of COVID-19, and many children go home to family members with a higher risk of COVID-19.

• We have employees diagnosed with underlying health issues or who are at an age which places them at higher risk of COVID-19, and many employees go home to or serve as caretakers of individuals at higher risk of COVID-19.

• We are limited by the number and size of existing classrooms and buses.

• We must live within limited financial means and under a cloud of potentially having these financial resources reduced.

The process of developing plans for implementing educational services has been ongoing and typically include three potential scenarios: opening at full capacity, implementing a hybrid model comprising both remote and onsite instructional activities, or continuing full-time remote learning.

Regardless of how we move forward, we remain committed to doing so in a manner that safely accommodates students, staff, and visitors.

As we consider the three potential scenarios, we do so in the context of operating within the conditions previously mentioned, implementing measures such as practical levels of social distancing adaptable to school environments, frequent hand-washing, and frequent cleaning and disinfecting of commonly touched surfaces.

We also must resolve many, many questions, including:

• Who is allowed to visit and enter our schools?

• What procedures need to be implemented for entering a school? If health screenings are required – what comprises a health screening, who is screened, who conducts it, when and where is it conducted, and what is an appropriate response to a failed screening?

• What personal protective equipment is needed and for whom? Can this equipment be affordably obtained and sustained?

• How do we safely implement effective instructional activities, especially among primary-aged children and in classrooms with limited space and class sizes limited by the available financial resources?

• How do we safely provide support services (occupational therapy/physical therapy, speech language development, tutoring, nurse/health care services, etc.)?

• How do we safely maintain and continue appropriate relationships that are fundamental in building the trust necessary to effectively teach knowledge and skills?

• How do we safely continue supporting and developing the positive mental health of students and employees?

• How do we safely provide opportunities for physical activity given the importance physical activity plays in helping the brain receive and process information?

• How do we train, accommodate and ensure an adequate number of substitute teachers?

• How do we ensure transportation for those who need it given that adherence to current social-distancing recommendations limits the capacity of our largest buses to only 13 children?

• How do we safely feed students? If we implement partial or full remote learning, how do we feed those who are at home?

• Is it possible to provide opportunities for extra- and co-curricular activities, and if so, how do we ensure safe participation?

• Can we offer mass-gathering events, and if so, how do we ensure safe participation and attendance?

Despite the work that remains, we continue to be hopeful we will be able to take steps toward normal. However, we will not jeopardize the health of our students, staff or their families simply because all of us desire a rapid return to our previous normal.

From what we are learning at this moment, school will look significantly different until there is a vaccine. Until then, we must learn to coexist with COVID-19. Over the next several weeks, we will continue gathering facts and developing plans for safely engaging our students.

Chris Himsel is superintendent of Northwest Allen County Schools.

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