July 6 marked a reopening for summer activities at schools throughout Allen County — the first time students have stepped foot on many school properties since COVID-19 effectively ended in-person academics in March. However, fall reentry plans are still a moving target.
While public school districts don’t expect to release comprehensive plans until later this month, it’s already clear some Allen County students will be required to wear masks in August.
For many districts across the state, the fall 2020 semester could resemble one of several hypothetical scenarios: schools implement a schedule that would allow only half the student body to be in the building at any given time while the other half of students learn remotely, students have year-round schooling with alternating breaks to minimize the number of students in the building at a time, schools provide in-person instruction to elementary students and increase distance learning opportunities for secondary grade levels, in-person and remote instruction are both offered based on students’ needs and parents’ concerns, or everyone returns in August — with extreme caution.
The four public school districts in Allen County plan to release detailed reopening plans later this month, as they continue to follow updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Allen County Department of Health. However, one thing is certain — at most school buildings, there simply isn’t enough square footage to put 6 feet between each of the hundreds or thousands of students that attend their respective schools each day.
At Northwest Allen County Schools, where enrollment growth has already forced the overflow of students in some schools into portable classrooms, the lack of unused space is abundantly clear — as the district’s superintendent, Chris Himsel, has pointed out numerous times over the past few months.
“Our classrooms are not large enough to do the social distancing that they are asking us to do,” Himsel said of the Indiana Department of Education’s COVID-19 reentry considerations released June 5.
At Concordia Lutheran High School, where the student body is less than one-third the size of Carroll High School’s in the Northwest Allen County Schools district, social distancing is still possible in only some classrooms. Concordia’s administrators have been working on a reopening plan for months now, and though they expect to flesh it out with more details as August approaches, face masks are going to be a requirement through much of the school day.
“The reality is some of our classrooms we can keep a halo of six feet between people, some of our classrooms we can’t do that, so where we can’t do that you have to wear a mask,” Patrick Frerking, Concordia’s principal, said.
Back in May, Frerking had thought it might not be until after Labor Day that Concordia students could return to school. Now, like the county’s public school districts, Concordia is shooting for an August start.
“About two, two-and-a-half weeks ago there was a massive shift and a tremendous amount of momentum to get school back in session, people on campus, but do it safely, do it wisely — with tremendous caution and tremendous responsibility,” Frerking said June 30.
Like other schools, at least some of Concordia’s registration for the 2020-21 school year will be done online. The goal is to have every student back in the classroom by Aug. 12. However, the first couple days of school will be spent adjusting to a new and unusual way of student life.
“We’re going to do some more thorough orientation with students that will include COVID training,” Frerking said. “We’ll look at symptoms, go through some of the protocols if somebody’s not feeling well during the school day.”
Where social distancing guidelines can be met, masks won’t be required, specifically where class sizes are small. Walking the halls will be another story. Frerking said every student will be expected to come to school wearing a mask Aug. 12 before entering the building and navigating to their locker. Students will be required to keep their masks on any time they are walking throughout the hallways. Once everyone is in class and socially distanced, the masks can be removed.
“We know that when people wear masks, the transmissions drop somewhere between 40% and 80%,” Frerking said. “What that means for schools is astronomically positive. That means, you know what, we might be able to have a football game on Friday night. That might mean we get to talk about the girls that are part of the volleyball team, the students that love doing drama. That 40% to 80% allows those things a much, much better chance of happening.”
In addition to providing hand sanitizer and encouraging frequent hand-washing, the school will implement a staggered block schedule with no more than four periods a day in an effort to reduce passing periods between classes. Classes will be let out on a staggered basis as well, so fewer students are in common areas at any given time. Drinking fountains will be turned off, and students will have to bring their own water bottles to fill at touch-free filling stations. Lunch periods will look drastically different as well, with most students eating in their classrooms while some eat in the cafeteria.
The other important consideration is knowing where every student is at all times, which means adhering to seating charts not only in the classroom but also during lunch periods. That way the school can work with the Allen County Department of Health to identify any potential spread if a student tests positive for COVID-19. Encouraging students to stay home if they feel sick will be a common thread in schools’ plans.
“I am convinced our students and our community will rise,” Frerking said. “Yeah, we’re going to have to learn new habits, and we might have a couple situations where somebody’s going to maybe grumble … It’s got to be safe for everybody — students, faculty, staff. If we can’t do it safely, we can’t do it, we have to stop right there.”
There are still many questions to answer, such as how to protect students with preexisting conditions and what considerations should be made if families don’t want to risk sending their children to school. At Concordia, the use of face masks is more practical, Frerking said, because high school students are responsible enough to use them properly. In elementary schools, keeping masks on faces could be much more challenging, should schools choose to mandate it.
Southwest Allen County Schools sought input from parents through an online survey June 24-30, gauging their feelings toward — among other things — the use of masks by students and staff. SACS’ first scheduled day of classes is Aug. 5. The district plans to release a comprehensive return-to-school plan July 14.
Northwest Allen County Schools conducted a similar survey in the spring. On June 8, Himsel reported about 30% of parents who responded said they had no concerns about sending their children back to school. About 25% of respondents preferred not to send their children back to school, and about 45% said they were leaning toward sending their children back to school, but wanted more answers as to what the reopening process would entail. The district’s school board is expected to receive a back-to-school plan no earlier than July 27.
Tamyra Kelly, a spokesperson for East Allen County Schools, said that district is still planning to move forward with welcoming students back Aug. 10. EACS continues to work with the Indiana Department of Education, Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office and the Allen County Department of Health in developing its own re-entry plan. EACS’ online registration for currently enrolled students is scheduled for July 24.
Fort Wayne Community Schools has begun developing a reopening plan as well. However, the district is also in the process of transitioning from one superintendent to another. Mark Daniel, who was selected as the district’s new superintendent in May, officially began his tenure July 1, causing a delay in the reopening determination.
“We’ve been working on the plans. It’s not like we haven’t started — we have — but we won’t have anything official until he starts and we can meet on things,” FWCS Public Information Officer Krista Stockman said, noting that she doesn’t expect those plans to be released until at least a few weeks into July.
FWCS’ first day of school is scheduled for Aug. 10.