MICHIGAN CITY — Traditional classroom learning has become an option for local public-school students several weeks sooner than expected.
The Michigan City Area Schools Board of Directors voted unanimously Tuesday to resume in-person instruction at all MCAS schools beginning Oct. 19, the Monday after the district’s fall break.
Their decision was based on two major factors: results of a parent survey indicating more than 67 percent of responders want their children to return to traditional schooling, and local statistics indicating the spread of COVID-19 is relatively low in La Porte County.
MCAS Associate Superintendent Wendel McCollum made his recommendation to the board after explaining a new metric announced Aug. 26 by the Indiana Department of Education and Indiana State Department of Health.
According to the new standards, school districts may determine instructional methods by considering two things: the number of new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents, and the percentage of positive tests.
At the time of Tuesday’s vote, La Porte County had reported 57 new cases per 100,000 residents, and the positive return rate of local COVID-19 tests was 3.4 percent; with numbers trending down since Aug. 25, McCollum said.
Those numbers place MCAS in what the state is calling the Blue category – a district in which the coronavirus spread is “minimal.”
As such, MCAS may offer in-person schooling to students in all grades, but still must limit activities in which social distancing is not possible.
Masks, social distancing, contact tracing and frequent disinfecting of touch surfaces will continue to be required.
Board member Deborah Chubb was concerned about the protocol for athletic events and other extracurricular activities.
McCollum indicated such activities are currently allowed, but the number of spectators is limited based on venue. And all spectators must adhere to requirements of wearing masks and maintaining safe social distance.
Board member Theresa Edwards asked about students’ transitions between classrooms and other areas in their schools, and who would be responsible for disinfecting rooms between classes.
McCollum said it’s currently up to the teachers to clean, and they may enlist students to help. But the district is also hiring additional staff to make sure cleanliness is at a safe level, and to allow teachers and students to maximize instruction time.
Additionally, he said, Michigan City High School is in the process of developing a block schedule to limit the number of times students have to move throughout the building.
The school has also scheduled more lunch periods in order to limit the number of students in the cafeteria at the same time; and switched to providing pre-packaged meals instead of allowing students to serve themselves.
Arrival and dismissal procedures also are being altered at each school.
Board member Peggy Rose said McCollum’s recommendation seems like a good plan, but had some reservations.
“I think it is equally important to have built into this plan some sort of surge testing plan if, indeed, we were to begin to be notified of there being an increase in the numbers of cases,” she said.
Whatever that plan is to look like, Rose said, it should be built in to the reopening plan from the beginning, as opposed to becoming a scrambled reaction to a spike in COVID-19 numbers.
McCollum accepted her suggestion and said that delaying the start of traditional schooling initially has been an added benefit to developing a thorough reopening plan.
“Delaying our in-person start has given us an opportunity to speak to all the other districts that started in person,” he said. “... so we’ve been able to discuss with them the positives and negatives they’ve had so far with the different options that they’re providing.”
MCAS Supt. Barbara Eason-Watkins said, “I just want to thank Dr. McCollum and members of the cabinet who have been meeting on a regular basis, trying to ensure that all decisions were based on the data and based on the health and safety protocols that have been in place. It’s been a journey.
“Our teachers have been working exceptionally hard to ensure that our online program was of the quality that everyone desired. So, again, just a special thanks to the board for trusting in us. We have tried to ensure that we have stayed on top of every protocol, every change in information that was necessary to bring us to tonight’s decision.”
Parents who are not ready to send their children back to school in person on Oct. 19 may choose to continue educating them through either MCAS Online or Michigan City Virtual Academy, as they have been doing since Aug. 24.
A hard date for when that decision must be made was not specified Tuesday. However, McCollum said the administration will need time to ensure each classroom is balanced to allow the proper physical distancing of students and teachers.