School plan garners mixed reactions

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

When Dubois County’s four school corporations announced the joint plan to reopen for in-person education this fall, reactions varied.

Some people were relieved to hear that in-person classes are planned to resume, while others felt the plan didn’t go far enough to protect students from the risk of COVID-19. Most still had questions about how the plan would be put into action.

“Honestly, I was happy they are going to open,” said Becky Mehling, who has two children at Ireland Elementary and one at Jasper High School.

Mehling, who described herself as on the “less fearful side” when it comes to COVID-19, said the reopening guidelines were not as strict as she expected them to be. For that, she was glad.

Representatives from the four school corporations — Greater Jasper, Northeast Dubois, Southeast Dubois and Southwest Dubois — spent weeks working together to research guidelines and data about safely reopening schools. The final product was a framework that lays out social distancing and sanitizing guidelines and a contact tracing plan that will be followed by all four school corporations.

The guidelines also include guidance for when and how to close schools — whether the closure be an individual building or a corporation as a whole — and how to transition to e-learning. There is also an online academy option for families who do not want to enroll in in-person classes. Facial coverings are strongly recommended, but not required.

“It’s smart,” Mehling said. “It has precautions without going overboard.”

Paula Echeverria was also glad to hear in-person classes would resume. She will have a child at Jasper Elementary, Jasper Middle School and at the high school. E-learning did not go well for her family. Her oldest child saw his grades plummet, and her youngest child had trouble completing assignments without supervision. With Echeverria working full time, e-learning tended to happen mostly in the evenings, and it was a battle.

“It’s tough to keep our kids focused online,” she said.

Although she does have some concerns about her children’s safety in school, she’s not overly concerned. The plans for activities in school buildings seem reasonable, she said, but she’s less sure about the buses. Although students will sit in assigned seats with their siblings and neighbors, Echeverria isn’t sure it’ll be enough.

“Some of these buses are so packed, depending on what neighborhood you’re in,” she said.

She’d like to see the schools plan for more buses to do double routes to alleviate the crowding.

Nicole Merkel, too, was glad to hear the schools plan to reopen. Her child attends Holland Elementary, and Merkel has worried about the social interactions the kids have been missing during the school closures.

“[Going back to school] might be the best thing for them at this point,” she said.

She was glad to see facial coverings would not be required. She doesn’t wear one herself, and didn’t want to have to require her daughter to do so. She also wanted the kids to be able to see the facial expressions of their teachers and peers to learn those social interactions.

“It’s not something I feel is good for kids at the elementary level,” she said.

That said, Merkel plans to talk to her daughter about good hygiene, washing her hands frequently and using the hand sanitizer that will be provided.

Although Merkel understands the fear some feel and sympathizes for people who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, she thinks it’s time to start getting back to normal.

“We just need to do it,” she said. “We need to bite the bullet with it. If it ends up that they need to close again, then so be it. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Sonya Meadowcroft is less convinced. She has two students at Forest Park Junior-Senior High School, one of whom has Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, which is a hereditary disease of the lungs. Meadowcroft doesn’t think the schools’ plans go far enough to protect students, especially those who are at risk.

“I was shocked that more wasn’t going to be done,” she said.

She expected facial coverings to at least be required on buses and in the hallways during passing periods, but under the current plan, they won’t be.

Over the next few weeks, Meadowcroft said she and her children will have serious conversations about whether in-person classes will be the right choice for their family. From a health perspective, they may not be, but e-learning isn’t the best option either. Meadowcroft said that both of her children — who are generally A and B students — saw their grades drop last semester, and the lack of social interaction took a toll on their mental health.

Both of her children would like to go back to in-person classes, but they’re worried about catching COVID-19 and carrying it home.

“They know we’re going to have to talk about it, and not everybody will be happy,” Meadowcroft said.

While the plans released Tuesday provide a countywide framework for the 2020-21 school year, each corporation and school building can adjust them as needed. The plans also all depend on developments with the COVID-19 pandemic and directives from the state and local health departments and Indiana Department of Education.




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