St. Joseph County schools wrestle with in-person instruction as COVID-19 numbers worsen | Education

St. Joseph County schools are making varying decisions on in-person instruction as the area’s COVID-19

St. Joseph County schools are making varying decisions on in-person instruction as the area’s COVID-19 numbers worsen, with some having leaned more toward state and federal guidelines that are looser than what county public health officials think are safe.

After allowing only online learning so far this school year, South Bend Community School Corp. this week started a hybrid format, allowing students to attend in-person two days a week, prompting the teacher’s union to take out a full-page Tribune advertisement Wednesday arguing the return has been “rushed” and is unsafe for teachers.

In Mishawaka, Marian High School, which had been teaching students entirely in person, switched Thursday to hybrid until at least Oct. 30, citing “an increase in the number of confirmed positive cases within the school community,” according to a letter that Principal Mark Kirzeder sent to parents, obtained by The Tribune.

Because it has players quarantined after contact tracing determined they had been exposed to people who have tested positive, Marian Thursday announced it had canceled its highly anticipated football game Friday against Elkhart. Both teams are undefeated.

It was unclear how many new cases Marian has seen. The private school is reporting its student and staff cases to the Indiana State Department of Health’s online schools COVID-19 dashboard, but the state updates it only on Mondays.

Kirzeder declined an interview request Thursday, referring The Tribune to the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Diocese spokeswoman Jennifer Simerman said Superintendent Joseph Brettnacher declined to be interviewed unless he could receive questions in advance, a practice that violates Tribune policy.

Mishawaka High School students began in-person instruction Monday. By the end of the day Thursday, administration officials there and at South Bend Community School Corp. had not responded to interview requests given to their media relations staff Thursday morning.

As August neared, after schools had spent the summer preparing for in-school instruction and state and federal officials had not provided them any guidelines, the county health department felt compelled to fill the void, said county deputy health officer Dr. Mark Fox. After consulting with people in Indianapolis and public health officials around the country, the department issued guidance “strongly recommending” online learning or “severely limited in-person instruction” if the county’s rolling seven-day average of new daily cases exceeded 28, and/or active cases, defined as positive tests within the past 14 days, was higher than 400.

At that time, the county’s rolling new case average was 40 and there were 599 active cases. Area public school systems began the school year virtual-only.

“All the big districts, honestly I feel like the superintendents and the boards felt like they were not in a good position to buck the guidance coming from the health department,” Fox said.

But about a month later, Gov. Eric Holcomb’s administration released new guidelines, closely resembling those issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control, that Fox said were more “liberal” or “generous” for schools wanting to offer an in-person option. Seeing that area schools were intent on giving this option, especially for elementary students who are learning to read and who have more difficulty with online learning, Fox said the department opted not to exercise its statutory authority to close schools.

Instead, the department required return-to-school plans to include at least these four priorities: Universal masking, staggering meal times to allow as much physical distancing as possible since masks can’t be worn while eating, ensuring schools would report new cases to the health department, and preventing hallway congestion.

“It became a question of, is this something we’re going to throw down the gauntlet and say no, we’re closing the schools, which clearly the local health officer has the authority to do that, or if their intent was to proceed, given the conflicting guidance that’s out there, let’s make sure they’re addressing (the health department’s priorities),” Fox said.

Signing off on plans

Fox said he signed off on plans for the county’s three largest school districts in late August through mid-September, when the county’s COVID-19 numbers were improving. But as of Thursday, the county’s rolling 7-day average of new daily cases was 74.1 and it had 1,091 active cases, metrics that are twice as high as thresholds in the department’s July 29 schools guidance.

Over the past week the county’s number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 has hovered in the 60s, the highest levels since early May.

“Given where we are in the county right now, I would rather they continue to do either fully online or markedly reduced capacity,” Fox said. “Over the last several weeks we’ve seen cases scattered across schools but they’ve been kind of here and there. Now we’re beginning to see multiple cases from the same school and that’s concerning, particularly because we know there’s some lag in the reporting of these things, by the time we’re aware of it and the (state) dashboard is really behind.”

P-H-M, the only local school system that is reporting its cases in real time on its website, has had 17 students and 11 staff test positive over the past two weeks, according to its dashboard. The corporation has offered a hybrid model since Sept. 14, following an Aug. 31 unanimous vote by the school board.

Superintendent Jerry Thacker said the plan was based on the state’s new color-coded metrics for counties, classifying them as red, orange, yellow or blue, with red having “high community spread.”

At that time the county was one of seven, out of 92 statewide, that the Holcomb administration had colored orange, meaning it had “moderate to high community spread,” indicating elementary schools could operate in person but there was a “strong recommendation” for hybrid learning at middle and high schools.

The state color system, updated on Wednesdays, uses two primary metrics: a county’s rolling seven-day average daily test positivity rate and its number of new daily cases per 100,000 residents for the prior week.

Thacker at the Aug. 31 meeting said that if the county moved into red or yellow, he would “normally” recommend a corresponding change in corporation plans, giving students, parents and teachers at least two weeks’ notice.

As of Wednesday the county’s new cases per 100,000 population this week were trending toward 200, the minimum cutoff point for red counties under the state system, Fox said.

It was unclear what that could mean for P-H-M. Neither Thacker nor anyone else from the corporation would agree to be interviewed Thursday, said P-H-M spokeswoman Lucha Ramey.

In an email, Ramey said the corporation would not grant an interview because the county health department had signed off on its plan and had not contacted the corporation to discuss the need to make any changes.

The South Bend school board Sept. 28 approved Superintendent Todd Cummings’ hybrid plan in a 5-2 vote. The board Aug. 3 had approved Cummings’ recommendation for at least eight more weeks of virtual-only learning, with a plan to check public health data Sept. 18 and give parents and teachers at least two weeks’ notice if it would begin offering an in-school option by Tuesday.

South Bend board president John Anella said he’s aware of the county’s recent numbers, which he checks daily like sports scores.

“It was looking so much better and then as we were getting ready to approve the reopening plan, they started to go the wrong way on us,” Anella said.

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