Families across the state should be prepared for the possibility of quick changes in the 2020-2021 school year.

COLUMBIA CITY — “Right now, we plan to open our schools 100% capacity, full time.”

Whitley County Consolidated Schools Superintendent Patricia O’Connor presented her reopening plan to the Board of Trustees on July 20 — a plan that received unanimous approval from the board.

“From the bottom of our hearts, we believe the most effective instruction happens in the classrooms,” she said.

One thing must be kept in mind; however … those plans are subject to change.

“This is the most up-to-date plan that we have … subject to change any time,” O’Connor said.

The district plans to open its doors to all students on Aug. 20 with many plans in place to protect the health of students and staff. O’Connor consulted with many entities in formulating the plan, including a parent survey, the district’s lead nurse, administrators, state and local health departments, Parkview and the CDC.

The 100% reopening plan is contingent on there still being low COVID-19 activity in Whitley County. As of Monday, the county had seen 116 positive cases and six deaths since March — out of 34,074 residents in the county. Last week, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced that the state would remain at stage 4.5, which restricts gatherings to 250 people or less, except when special exceptions are made.

“That doesn’t lend itself to opening a school,” O’Connor said. “So, we No. 1 need to watch what the governor is doing for the state. We may need to delay our plan based on the state directives.”

The plan offers alternatives for children who are high risk, live with someone who is high risk, or otherwise will not be returning to in-person classes. For the rest, there will be times during the day that face masks are required, and staff will make plans to keep students within cohorts and away from high-traffic situations.

Classroom environments will look different. Non-essential items will be removed from all rooms so desks and students can be spread apart as much as possible. Elementary and middle school students will mostly remain in their classrooms for the day, moving for related arts, lunch and recess only. Teachers will coordinate their times in the hallway, staggering them to reduce congestion in the hallways. At the high school, student desks will be sanitized between classes, and other equipment will be sanitized.

All students in all grade levels will have assigned seating.

Staff will encourage frequent hand washing and a “high level of health hygiene.”

Physical education classes will be held outdoors when possible, with limited shared equipment and activities that don’t require close contact.

Teachers and staff will wear masks and face shields during the day, and O’Connor is calling on families to encourage healthy practices with their students.

“I ask everyone to do their part,” O’Connor said. “Families and WCCS will work together to keep the schools safe, healthy and open.”

Masks will be required on school buses, and students will have assigned seats and seating will be arranged in a special way. The first students on the bus will be required to sit in the back so that new students coming on the bus will not walk past those who are already seated.

Masks will also be required at various other times during the day, including walking through the school, during emergency drills, or when in small groups in class.

“In those cases, teachers and students wear masks,” O’Connor said. “We ask parents to ensure that all students have a clean face covering for their children every day — we ask that parents cooperate with us to get this done.”

So, what happens if a student tests positive?

Many decisions will be made by the local health department regarding who should quarantine. The sick student should isolate for at least 10 days, and those in close contact with the student will also quarantine.

“This is why the cohorts are so important,” O’Connor said.

If a student test positive, the health department can assist with contact tracing and identifying students who were in close contact with the student. Those parents will be contacted directly, but not all parents will be notified each time a student or staff member tests positive.

“We do not plan on doing mass emailing or announcing it at any school,” O’Connor said. “But parents and staff members can be assured that anyone who may have been in close contact will be notified.

“Close contact” is typically considered anyone who was within 6 feet of a COVID positive individual for 15 minutes or more.

O’Connor stressed the importance of keeping sick kids home. Students and families will not receive letters this year for poor attendance.

“The only way we can keep the schools open is if we all work together and parents keep their child home if they are sick in any way,” O’Connor said.

“This is so against what my mother told me we had to do. Well, things have changed with COVID-19. Even a headache can be considered a symptom.”

Students and staff will be screened every day. Parents should send water bottles to school with children, as drinking fountains will not be used. There will be no exchange of money during lunchtime.

As for extracurriculars, athletics began holding practices in early July, and Athletic Director Khelli Leitch reported that there have been no illness incidences since the reopening.

“Some kids decided to stay home because someone in their family was being tested — but all of those tests came back negative,” Leitch said. “The heat has been our biggest issue right now.”

Weight room equipment has been moved outside to provide for more social distancing, and equipment is sanitized between use.

“As an athletic director, I’ve been surprised and please about how open the athletes have been,” Leitch said. “Part of us expected them to just want to be back regardless of how they felt. We have seen that has not been the case. If they don’t feel well, they tell us. We’ve preached to them and they’ve stuck with it.”

As of now, the district plans to continue transportation for activities such as athletics and FFA, again with students seated in zones with assigned seating for contact tracing. Each school also has plans on what to do with students who may be showing COVID-19 symptoms while at school, protecting other students and staff from potential spread.

There will be no visitors or volunteers allowed in the school at this time. Field trips have also been canceled, and all larger group activities, such as school plays and musicals, canceled.

Though school won’t be the same as it was, staff members are working to make the best of it.

“We are aware of the challenges faced by families and students during this time,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor also outlined some other plans if the coronavirus situation in Whitley County makes a turn for the worse. With moderate spread, the school will have students attend on different days of the week, having a mix of an online and in-person class. In severe spread, students will go back to full-time online classes, as they finished the spring semester.

O’Connor said she is working on obtaining grants to provide internet service to families in need. Additionally, mobile devices will now be provided to kindergarten and first-grade students, who previously did not have Chromebooks or iPads.

“Thank you to all of our families and staff for all the support given to us,” O’Connor said.

Parents should expect an email with the detailed plans, as well as other registration options, sometime this week.

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