The start of the 2020-21 school year is only two months away and there are more questions than answers about what school will look like as the state continues to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

Last week the Indiana Department of Education released a 40 page document for COVID-19 health and safety re-entry guidance. The document outlines best practices as schools look toward reopening.

Earlier this week State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick held a webinar for teachers and administrators, highlighting the best practices.

“We’re all trying to get schools back in,” McCormick said. “We just have to remember that, that’s going to look different across counties and across the state.”

The emphasis on the webinar was on the freedom of local school leaders to determine how their schools will operate during the coronavirus pandemic.

Local school districts are currently working through the details of the document as they formulate a reopening plan.

As schools are looking forward to welcoming students back in August, one thing’s for sure; school will look different.

Westview Superintendent Randy Yoder said he is hoping his district will have a plan in place by mid-July to relay to parents.

“We are going to do everything we can to return to school,” Yoder said. “It’s not going to be a perfect world moving forward.”

In returning to school Yoder said it will be important that students and parents understand the importance of staying home if they don’t feel well. Also understanding the signs of COVID-19 will be important.

Central Noble Superintendent Troy Gaff said his district is still working through a wide variety of scenarios as they continue to work with other districts in northeast Indiana. His administration team and staff is meeting on a daily basis.

“Whatever decision we make it isn’t going to be easy,” he said.

East Noble Superintendent Ann Linson told the school board in May that the district had several plans, but a decision would not be made until closer to the start of school. She emphasized that no matter what decision was made students would be receiving the highest education possible.

As cases continue to escalate in LaGrange County Dr. Eva Merkel, superintendent of the Lakeland School Corporation said she is working closely with the local health department as her school formulates a plan.

She said her district will offer a wide variety of opportunities for students in 2020-21. The school system will work with parents and students to make everyone comfortable.

“It is an interesting place to be,” she said. “We are working on a reasonable plan for everyone.”

Tonya Weaver, superintendent of Garrett-Keyser-Butler Community School District said her district is also working closely with its local health department.

“We must be nimble and adapt to this rapidly changing situation,” Weaver said. “We are excited to welcome our children back for a successful 2020-21 school year.”

In a letter sent to parents on June 1, Brent Wilson, superintendent of MSD of Steuben County said his district is still planning on starting school on Aug. 13.

“We will be implementing new procedures to ensure the safety of all individuals who enter our schools,” he said in the letter. “We also know that we will need to accommodate families who may choose to keep their students at home for a variety of reasons. The delivery of our curriculum at all levels will be challenging as we continue to utilize alternative methods in the most effective ways possible.”

He went on to say as the COVID-19 situation evolves, “I can see our student attendance fluctuating on a daily basis.”

The department of education’s reopening document stressed there are two key factors for reopening. Those factors are the school’s ability to maintain a safe and healthy school environment and the prevalence of COViD-19 in the community. Schools will continually need to evaluate these two factors as schools and communities will most likely fluctuate between the various phases of this pandemic.

Recommendations in the state’s document include the possibility of daily health screenings, the wearing of masks, social distancing and transportation guidelines.

Merkel said it will be important for schools to stress good hygiene with their students.

“The new normal is going to have to be we are going to have to practice the good hygiene traits we should have been doing all along,” Merkel said.

She went on to say that extra time will have to be worked into the daily schedule to make these good hygiene traits possible.

McCormick said some schools could choose to require masks at all times, while others might elect to only require them for certain activities or not at all. To assist the governor’s office is planning on purchasing two million masks for distribution by the state’s education department.

“It’s not a long-term fix, but rather a way to help out schools that will require them to be worn,” she said.

McCormick said the “lack of continuity” across the state stems from variations in the prevalence and spread of the coronavirus in different communities.

Along with returning to the classroom districts are also moving forward on tightening up their e-learning or virtual learning curriculum as the reality is both of them will have to be utilized during the 2020-21 school year.

One of the major problems school districts in northeast Indiana encountered this past spring was internet connectivity. As some students don’t have access to internet at home others don’t have access to high speed internet, which is needed to optimize virtual learning platforms and video lessons.

The Central Noble school district is currently working with parents on a survey of their needs as they move forward.

Merkel said the Lakeland district is already beefing up its wifi, which will allow students connectivity outside of the school. This will allow parents to drive their students to the school to retrieve online learning lessons if needed.

Wilson said, while there is no true substitute for in-person classroom instruction, schools are going to have to be flexible.

“I envision the continuation of the virtual learning format for the first few months of the school year,” Wilson wrote in his letter. “The classroom may consist of 15 students at school and five students at home one day and the total opposite the next day. I can assure you that parents will have the flexibility to determine when they believe it is safe to send their children back to school.”

Schools across the state were forced to utilize their e-learning curriculum to finish out the school year once the stay-at-home order was signed in March. Many school systems utilized a mixture of e-learning and paper packet handouts to keep students engaged.

Gaff said Central Noble has made a lot of improvements to its e-learning curriculum, but more tweeks are needed.

“I think the students, parents and staff did a good job of adapting,” he said.

Lakeland School Corporation recently purchased new learning management software, which will have all of its buildings on the same platform. A team of teachers is also working over the summer to research best practices from other schools as they look forward to August.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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