School board tackles COVID-19 issues during special session Thursday night

Friday, July 31, 2020
Superintendent Jeff Fritz listens to Director of Human Resources Ernie Simpson's presentation about the virtual academy during the Clay Community School's Board of Trustees annual "back-to-school" meeting Thursday.

EDITED - Friday, July 31, 2020

The Clay Community School's Board of Trustees held its annual "back-to-school" meeting Thursday to make sure everything is in place and ready for the first day of school (for students it is Wednesday, Aug. 5). But the recent COVID-19 pandemic created some last-minute changes.

The CCS 2020-21 School Year Roadmap had a few modifications approved by the board, with full details being released soon on the school's website.

The main thing the community, families of students, and the staff at CCSC need to now is the main goal is to provide the safest learning experience for students and staff members.

"This is uncharted territory for everyone. It is a fluid situation, and we are learning more about COVID-19 all the time," said Superintendent Jeff Fritz. "With the fluidity of COVID-19, the Roadmap will be a working document that will undoubtedly need to be revised a lot this year."

It was confirmed during the meeting that the CCSC would _NOT_ (NOTE - the CSC requested this edit be made Friday, July 31 to ensure accurate information is available to the public.) implement the Low/No Spread or Green portion of the re-entry plan for the start of the school year at least until the Governor's face mask mandate is lifted. The risk levels categories included in the Roadmap are Low/No Spread (Green), Minimal/Moderate Spread (Yellow), and Substantial Spread (Red).

The Roadmap changes were made in consideration of the recent COVID-19 data at the Indiana State Department of Health, the local Clay County Health Department, and Gov. Eric Holcomb's announcement that Indiana will be staying in Stage 4.5 of its Back On Track opening plan until Aug. 27.

In-classroom instruction will be available with some precautions, like students and staff members wearing face coverings, providing time for handwashing and good hygiene practices, and safety and sanitizing surfaces in schools throughout the school day.

Fritz explained it was great foresight by Director of Extended Services Jesse Trunnel that enough cleaning supplies were acquired to allowed the corporation to share some with other groups in need this summer and still have enough stockpiled to maintain the proper cleaning guidelines for the schools.

"We are not the first school to open in the state," said Fritz, adding that Avon has opened without any problems. "We are the first corporation to open locally next Wednesday, but I believe we got this. We're looking forward to a good opening. Excited to get kids back in the classrooms and getting back to some semblance of normal."

A big concern for most parents whose children will be returning to the traditional classroom is face coverings. The board approved the policy change Thursday night that all students and staff members will be required to wear face coverings, including while riding the school buses.

Lynn Stoelting, with CCSC Health Services, has been working with the Clay County Health Department, Clay County Health Officer, and Director Dr. Camillo Mendoza, and Clay County Public Health Nurse Kim Hyatt. All three attended the meeting to answer any questions by the board members.

Board member Charlie Jackson wanted to know what happens if a child forgets their face covering at the school bus.

"Starting tomorrow, I will be gathering bags of disposable masks, various sizes, that will be available on the school buses," said Stoelting, who added there was a good supply of masks to use, however, families are encouraged to provide their own if possible.

Board President Tom Reberger believes this presents students with a fun to show off their style while learning about why the masks are so important right now.

"If a student wants pink butterflies on their mask, they can have it," Reberger said, adding that many young children will quickly get over their fears when they see friends, classmates, and their teachers wearing a mask to school.

The Chromebooks ordered for elementary students are currently tied up in a custom issue, delaying delivery. However, a contingency plan allowed for the laptops previously collected from students at the secondary level have been reconditioned and are ready for delivery to students on the first day of school.

Concerned about sending their children back to a traditional school, many parents considered the option of the virtual academy discussed last month by the school board.

Director of Human Resources Ernie Simpson and Director of Business Affairs Mark Shayotovich spoke about the new rigorous education program through Edmentum will be implemented in 30-day blocks and was supposed to be capped at 100 students.

"A highly fluid situation, and what is being shared today, can very easily be different tomorrow," said Simpson, who admitted the situation could change hourly, and he knows because it happened for the presentation. "I did it at 9 a.m., put the finishing touches on it this morning, and by 2 p.m., it was already outdated."

At 9 a.m. Thursday, 450 applications had been turned in expressing interest by families of having their students participate in the virtual academy. By 2 p.m. that afternoon, the numbers were over 500.

Simpson said it was an unexpected scramble to arrange the teaching staff to accommodate students in both the traditional classroom and virtual academy. Edmentum will provide the teachers or the virtual classes during August for the virtual academy so that no teachers will have to change over.

The hope is that many students (and families) will change their minds about the vigorous virtual learning experience that doesn't have a hand's on approach to learning like traditional learning experiences.

Shayotovich's presentation also took a hit because of information changing so fast. He explained if Edmentum provides virtual teachers for the entire school year for an estimated total of 236 students, the cost would be $780,000. However, if CCS can create a hybrid plan to make changes that utilize current staff members to be the virtual teachers, the cost drops to $233,640.

"We can use our one time CARE money to fund the August portion of the cost, and see how all this is going to shake out," Shayotovich said, who added the plan would probably change monthly. "I promise you; we will do what is most efficient and what is best In the long run. "

At this point, it is unclear how' many students will participate in the virtual academy throughout the year for a myriad of reasons.

"We are keeping our fingers crossed that of the 500 students showing interest so far, a vast majority of them will realize they are missing out on the fun and excitement of learning," said Shayotovich. "And after not being with their friends and being cooped up for so long, that they will be right back."

The main objective is to provide options that allow for the student enrollment to be maintained and for families to feel comfortable in the choices they make for their children's education.

Board member Amy Burke Adams said local teachers and staff members had proven their commitment to their students when the COVID-19 pandemic closed school across the state.

"They are always looking out for the best interest of the child, of their students," said Adams. "We know we will make the plan work because Clay County teachers will find a way to make it work."

Reberger recognizes why parents signed up for the virtual academy.

"We want the kids in school, one way or another. We firmly believe they need to be in the classroom, face-to-face with a teacher, we don't want them at home watching Netflix," Reberger said about the emotional topic for many families. "The thing that is so important is that we keep (students) learning and doing the right things. I understand the fear parents feel about COVID-19. I appreciate it if they say, 'I'm not comfortable or ready to send my children back to school yet.' We are trying to accommodate every student as best that we can. No one is passing judgment whichever way you chose to go. But we want 9students) in school one way or another."

The Clay Community School Board of Trustees will meet again in the Board Room at the Central Administrative Office, 1013 South Forest Avenue, Brazil. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. on Sept. 13.

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