Local schools release back-to-school plans

By Dawn Hatfield
DailyAdvocate.com

DARKE COUNTY — Soon, the dust clouds will settle within the Great Darke County Fairgrounds, and life will return to normal — or will it? With local cases of COVID-19 again on the rise, some question if a “normal” school year is truly attainable for students headed back to the classrooms.

Local public-school districts have been optimistic over the summer, collaborating with one another and working in close conjunction with Darke County Health Commissioner Dr. Terrence Holman, DVM, RS. District plans have been tailored to safely welcome back students and staff while maintaining a sense of normalcy.

No public-school districts in Darke county currently have mask mandates in place though other layered prevention strategies are to be implemented.

Greenville City Schools Superintendent Doug Fries emphasized, “Remember, everyone can wear a mask if they desire to help protect themselves as recommended from the CDC and State and Local Health Departments.”

“Daily self-monitoring is critical. Students should not come to school if sick. This is a great way for students and parents to help slow the spread of any COVID-19,” he added.

Frequent washing of hands, thorough anti-viral disinfecting, use of seating charts in classrooms and on buses, staggered entrance and departure, hand sanitizer and touchless water fountain stations, social distancing whenever possible, and mandatory COVID-positive reporting are some of the precautions Greenville CSD and other districts in the county plan to implement as they reopen their doors for fall.

Franklin-Monroe Superintendent Jeremy Pequignot cited the need for balance, stating, “Having not been in school for a year would [negatively] impact students’ mental health.” His goal for the Franklin Monroe district is to safely provide what students need in terms of education and overall wellness. For him, this translates to “a lot of hope for normalcy,” including athletic events, field trips, and the annual graduation ceremony. The decision-making process during the pandemic is a complex one, and Pequignot reiterated that “no one person is making the decisions alone.”

One big question remains: Will these plans hold out? Dr. Holman reported on Aug. 18 that positive COVID-19 cases in Darke County “might be exponentially going up,” noting an increase from an average of less than one case per day throughout much of the summer to an average of 9 cases per day over the past two weeks. He plans to meet again with school superintendents in the very near future. When asked what he’d like to say to families in the county, Dr. Holman stated, “Getting vaccinated is of utmost importance and is the one thing we can do to control the virus the most.”

As one of the earliest starting schools in the county, Bradford Exempted Village School’s Superintendent Joe Hurst echoed Dr. Holman’s concerns about rising case numbers while adding that his school staff are “taking things in stride” and the district is “as prepared as it can be,” especially with recent HVAC upgrades in the buildings. He also noted that like many other surrounding schools, each student is issued their own laptop or tablet and the Bradford district is poised to resume remote learning should the need arise. Hurst indicated using Chromebooks and Google Classroom was successfully tested last year and continues to prove very useful for individual students who must quarantine during the school year.

Mississinawa Valley Local School District may serve as a good example to follow this year as the district’s final 11 weeks of spring 2021 resulted in zero positive COVID-19 cases. Superintendent Jeffrey Winchester credits sanitizing, social distancing, quarantining, and especially efforts of the students, staff, and community for the successful end to a challenging year.

Superintendent John Stephens, Arcanum-Butler Local Schools, brought the conversation back to educational concerns. His district worked hard over the summer to close any gaps that may have emerged for students during the unconventional 2020-2021 school year. Elementary and middle school students were afforded extra learning opportunities during the break, and incoming Kindergarteners started classes early with a jump start program to insure they “felt comfortable coming in.”

Although a KFF poll published Aug. 11 found that 63 percent of all parents of children who attend school think schools should require unvaccinated students and staff to wear masks, Stephens believes the district’s decisions are “representative of the input and thoughts of parents and stakeholders” as the district has listened closely to them and their concerns. The school system also has a unique advantage in the Arcanum Virtual Academy. Its blend of online and (optional) in-person lab instruction enables specific student needs to be met in a less traditional way. While the Arcanum Virtual Academy does have limited open enrollment throughout the year, it currently is full.

There is little doubt that everyone is ready for the reemergence of “normalcy.” The CDC’s Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools clearly states, “Students benefit from in-person learning, and safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall 2021 is a priority.” However, the decision-making process is a complex one and the needs of the whole child, family, school district, community, and beyond, must be considered. There are no certainties in the midst of a pandemic. As Doug Fries of Greenville CSD reminds us, “Our plan will change and update if the health department and board feel conditions call for it. These are tough decisions, and the district and board are balancing all the information they have.”

Dawn Hatfield covers education stories for The Daily Advocate. Have a school-related event to share? Reach out by email at [email protected] or by phone at 937-569-0066.