It could be mid-July before Northwest Allen County Schools parents know whether or not their children will return to their school buildings this fall. During a June 8 meeting of the NACS Board of School Trustees, Superintendent Chris Himsel said it could even be early August before he has an answer.
“Our hope and our intent, as I’ve said in previous meetings, is to be open,” Himsel said. “But we’re not going to be open if our local experts tell us that we can’t do it in a way that will protect children and their families that they go home to who have high-risk people.”
Schools across Indiana began closing in March in order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Now that summer break is in full swing, Fort Wayne-area school districts are monitoring the ever-changing recommendations coming from state and local health officials, in order to determine if more distance learning is warranted this fall.
During the June 8 meeting, Himsel noted that schools in Israel that had already brought students back for in-person classes had to walk back that decision due to another spike in COVID-19 cases. Schools in Germany and Finland are beginning the back-to-school process, and some schools in China have done the same.
“We’re fortunate that we have some local contacts that know some people in those schools, so we can learn from them. We’re also taking advantage of the fact that we have one of the later start dates for schools, and that will give us the advantage of learning from some other people who may encounter some problems when they start opening up. We can learn from that and not repeat those problems,” Himsel said.
The Indiana Department of Education released re-entry guidance to schools June 5. The 38-page document lays out several safety considerations — many of which the DOE says should be consistent with state and local guidelines. However, some of those safety measures would be impossible to implement due to physical restraints, Himsel said.
“It is not realistic to be able to implement the things that they are asking us to implement. Our classes, the size of our classrooms, are not large enough to do the social distancing that they are asking us to do. So what we are doing with our medical and local public health experts is asking them questions about how much of that is required versus how much of that is nice to do if we’re able to — so that we can do something that’s practical, that will fit.”
Several schools in the NACS district and Fort Wayne Community Schools have already had to add mobile classroom space as a result of growing class sizes. Doubling classroom space to implement social distancing is simply out of the question, Himsel said.
NACS recently conducted a parent survey to gauge families’ concerns as they consider sending their children back to school in the fall. Himsel said the district has sent local health experts several questions that arose in the process, such as how PPE should be implemented, whether or not students should be required to wear masks, and whether or not children could risk spreading multisystem inflammatory syndrome to members of their family.
About 30% of the parents who responded to the survey said they had no concerns about sending their children back to school. About a quarter of the respondents were leaning toward not sending their children back to school in the fall.
About 45% said they had concerns and would like more answers, but were leaning toward sending their children back to school in the fall. “Hopefully that’s because we’ve built trust over time — that if we do decide to open up, it’s because we thought this through in terms of how we’re going to do it,” Himsel said.
Another concern is how districts will protect high-risk staff and families. Himsel said replacing staff would not be easy as there are not enough substitutes and teachers waiting in the wings to take their place.