Teachers have lingering questions as school nears

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

There are a lot of questions left to be answered.

That is the general consensus among Dubois County’s teachers following the release of the countywide school reopening framework last week.

The four county school corporations — Greater Jasper, Northeast Dubois, Southeast Dubois and Southwest Dubois — worked together to construct the framework that lays out guidelines for COVID-19 safety measures when schools reopen next month. The framework covers social distancing, sanitizing, e-learning should schools close and contact tracing in the event of a positive COVID-19 test. The framework — which the schools have made available on their websites — is extensive while also leaving a lot of room for personalization.

“Each corporation will still have some things to work out,” said Amy Mitchell, a teacher at Northeast Dubois High School and president of the Northeast Dubois Teachers Association.

Mitchell participated in developing the framework.

The framework allows each corporation and each school building to work within its confines to develop day-to-day operations. As teachers prepare to return to their classrooms, questions about those details are at the front of their minds.

For Huntingburg Elementary teacher Andrea Brown, a big question is how to conduct small group instruction, which is key to her teaching style. She’s not sure how she’ll have to modify that for COVID-19.

Brown also wonders how well social distancing will work out when elementary-age students are still learning about personal space.

“It’s not their norm to keep their distance from their friends,” she said.

Mitchell and the teachers she represents have a lot of questions about what happens when someone in the school tests positive for COVID-19. Although the framework does call for students to be kept in small groups as much as possible to make contact tracing easier, at the middle and high school level, that’s difficult. Students move from class to class through the day and pass each other during passing periods.

“There’s just a lot of questions,” Mitchell said. “I don’t know if we have the answers yet.”

Under the framework, who quarantines in the event of a positive test result will depend on who was in close contact with the person who tested positive. Under the framework and guidelines from the state, “close contact” is defined as within 6 feet of someone for more than 15 minutes.

The state offered some additional guidance for schools on what to do if someone tests positive during Gov. Eric Holcomb’s weekly COVID-19 update on Wednesday. According to guidelines from the Indiana State Department of Health and the Family and Social Services Administration, students should be kept in pods throughout the day as much as possible. One positive case in a pod will require the entire pod to quarantine. Two positive cases in a classroom would require the entire class to quarantine. These guidelines are similar to what child care facilities are following.

Looking at the plan, Jasper High School teacher Alicia Clark doesn’t think a positive test result will be as detrimental to school buildings as people assume. She’s heard concerns that one positive test result will mean most or all of a school will need to quarantine, but if the guidelines are followed, that shouldn’t be the case.

“I think it’s going to be a lot easier to contain than people think,” Clark said.

Teachers are also concerned about transitioning between in-person classes and e-learning if schools must close, either in the short term for cleaning or for a long-term closure like the shutdowns in March. The countywide framework lays out three phases: the green phase, which has students in class in person; the yellow phase, which has a combination of in-person and e-learning instruction; and the red phase, which calls for school buildings to close.

When Mitchell thinks about e-learning for Northeast Dubois, two big concerns come to mind: the details for the yellow phase and internet access for students in their homes. Mitchell and her colleagues wonder what exactly instruction looks like at the yellow phase when some students are in class and others are at home. The details of those plans are still in the works.

Internet connectivity is also an issue for Northeast Dubois. Since it is a rural area, Mitchell said, not all students have internet access at home. That makes delivering e-learning materials effectively a challenge.

If schools must close again, Clark thinks it will be easier to transition to e-learning now than it was when schools suddenly closed in March. With frequent updates on the COVID-19 data, Clark believes educators will be able to anticipate the need for a widespread closure if it comes. The phases in the framework also allow everyone involved to have some idea of what to expect as the data changes.

“That gave me more confidence for how I can plan going into the year,” she said.

Although teachers have many concerns and unanswered questions, they are eager to get back to their classrooms and to see their students again.

“We know that being in the classroom is going to be what’s best for their academic growth and their social and emotional growth as well,” Clark said.

For her, returning to the classroom isn’t a worry, but she knows some of her colleagues are concerned, especially those who have health conditions that put them in the high-risk group.

The consensus among local educators seems to be that there isn’t a perfect solution for the upcoming school year and that adjustments will have to be made along the way. While teachers want to be in class with their students, they also want to make sure their students are safe and that they can deliver a quality education. With the current plan, Brown thinks both are possible.

“They’ve done a good job of leaving it open enough for us to change it as we go,” Brown said of the framework. “I’m anxious and I’m hopeful to see what getting back into the swing of things will bring.”

Regardless of what the future holds, the teachers agreed that the 2020-21 school year will require patience and flexibility from all involved. Operating under the COVID-19 pandemic is new to everyone, and there’s a lot of information to sort through to figure out what the best choices are, Mitchell said.

“I think it’s important that we all stay kind,” Mitchell said. “We all want to keep our kids safe and get them educated. That will just look different.”




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