Vigo County School Corp. middle and high school students will begin attending classes in-person four days a week next month, with Mondays being used for contact tracing and e-Learning.

The Vigo County School Board approved the changes Monday night by a 6-1 vote, with Rosemarie Scott voting against.

•On March 2, middle school students will begin attending in-person Tuesday through Friday.

•On March 9, high school students will begin attending in-person Tuesday through Friday.

The plan was developed in consultation with the VCSC COVID-19 Task Force, the Vigo County Health Department and several local healthcare leaders.

The number of community and school cases of COVID-19 is declining, officials say. A return to more in-person instruction is also important to improve the academic success and mental health of students.

"Our data are now informing us that middle and high school students are ready to move to more in-person learning," said Karen Goeller, deputy superintendent.

Among those supporting the decision are Dr. Jackie Holder, pediatrician; Dr. Dorene Hojnicki, director of Vigo County EMA; and Dr. Darren Brucken, Vigo County health commissioner.

"I think at this point, from a public health standpoint, from the Vigo County Health Department, we are absolutely in support of this resolution" to go back to more in-person learning for middle and high school students, Brucken said.

But he emphasized, "That's if things hold. We will continue to watch the numbers; we continue to watch the trends. Right now we are blessed from a community standpoint because our community numbers are falling. They are staying down. We are also seeing hospitalization rates staying down," Brucken said. ICU admissions are down as well.

During a public comment period, three parents spoke in support of the move to more in-person schooling. Leslie Ellis said her son and other high school students are struggling academically and remote learning is causing them added stress.

Julie Mahurin, whose son is a high school junior, believes "there has been a definite loss with his education this year." He's preparing for college, and this year is critical in terms of academic preparation and his ability to obtain scholarships.

He had goals of straight As this year, "but that hasn't happened. It's been disheartening. He's still an A/B student ... but it's been a struggle," she said. He's had to teach himself some material and at times has worked with his friends to figure out answers to questions.

It's more challenging because "you're not in a classroom setting. You're not in school," Mahurin said. Students are also missing out on the socialization.

Reacting to the board's decision to move to four days of in-person instruction, she said. "I think it's wonderful. I think it should have happened a lot sooner."

The school district initially proposed having high school students move to four days of in-person per week starting March 16, but the school board decided to move it up a week. Board member Susan Powers made the motion to move up the date for high school students.

Board member Amy Lore said the overwhelming comment she receives from the public is they want students to return to in-school as soon as possible.

After the meeting, Bill Riley, director of communications, stated, "The numbers [of COVID-19 cases] are very low — both community, but also in our schools. We feel very comfortable with this plan, especially because we have some large high schools showing us the way," he said.

VCSC has studied large high schools like Brownsburg, Avon, and Plainfield — schools with students who have attended school five days per week — and has concluded that community spread, not educational model, is the largest driver of cases in the school setting.

Riley cautioned that officials will be watching numbers closely, and schools or classrooms could go back to remote if necessary. "We're stepping into this very cautiously," he said. But given the numbers and trends right now, "The time is right to introduce a plan to return more in-person learning to our middle and high school students."

Currently, secondary students have e-Learning on Monday and then attend in person every other day on an A/B schedule. The “A” cohort students attend school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while “B” cohort students attend school on Wednesdays and Fridays.

In other matters, the board approved a resolution related to use of a building corporation/lease-rental process to finance the $10 million renovation of Otter Creek Middle School. A hearing will be conducted March 22. On Monday , the board approved the form of a lease.

“Going through a building corporation is a widely-used practice for school projects across the state,” Riley said last week.

“We go through a building corporation/lease arrangement so that the building corporation can take on the appropriate amount of debt for the project and so that debt does not limit the Vigo County School Corp. from taking on debt through general obligation bonds for future projects," Riley stated.

This type of financing does not count against the school corporation's constitutional debt allowance, according Ice Miller, the district's bond counsel.

The maximum amount to be borrowed would be $10 million, with an estimated repayment term of 10 years and eight months, according to BakerTilly, municipal advisors. The total estimated interest expense is $1.4 million; the interest rate is based on current market indicators plus 1%.

A legal ad proposes a 15-year lease, but Riley said that would be the maximum term.

The building corporation, which would sell the bonds, has not yet been formed; under the lease agreement, the building corporation would own the building or a portion of the building and the district would make lease payments. Once the debt is repaid, the school district would again assume ownership.

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