By a 5-1 vote, the Vigo County School Board amended its school re-entry plan to include a so-called "A/B split," which will stagger in-person attendance and reduce the number of students in each building through Sept. 4.
Board member Rosemarie Scott voted against; she opposes in-person instruction at this time. Board member Mel Burks did not attend Monday's meeting.
Vigo County health commissioner Dr. Darren Brucken attended the meeting and spoke in support of the district's plan and the amendment.
About 11,000 of 14,000 VCSC students will be attending school in person, officials said. Other options include a hybrid [remote learning from home] at the elementary and middle school levels and Vigo Virtual Success Academy.
With the A/B split, all students who have chosen the in-person option will attend school every other day, based on their last name. The change, which extends through Sept. 4, means fewer students in the buildings each day and a safer start to the school year, officials say.The change affects elementary, middle and high school.
No more than half of students will be in school at any one time, and students will attend on alternating days; the other days will be remote learning from home. Students whose last names start with A-K will be the A cohort, and those whose last names start with L-Z will be in the B cohort.
Scott, in opposing the amendment, said many people in the community are not following the rules to stop the spread of COVID; they are not masking, distancing and following other safety protocols. "I continue to be against face-to-face opening," she said. After the meeting, she said she believes school should be conducted remotely until at least Labor Day.
She does believe that exceptions could be made for special-needs children who need to be in school.
"I'm hearing from so many teachers," Scott said. Some are afraid. Some have told her they are making out their wills. Others are stressed because the plans keeps changing.
Scott also pointed to recent news that COVID is already affecting VCSC athletes and school staff, even before school has started.
In July, Scott voted against the district's school re-entry and mitigation plan.
In supporting the change, school board member Susan Powers said elearning is not an option for many students because they lack the technology or Internet. "It's very easy to say let's do online learning, but it's not available for many students," she said after the meeting. She believes the A/B model is a "nice compromise. There are kids who have to be in school."
In a public comment period, Brucken said the health department has worked closely with the school in its school re-entry plan. "We collectively at the health department, and myself personally, fully support the A/B plan," he said. It aims to keep kids as separate as possible and ensure universal masking in school.
To mitigate COVID spread, "We have to stay distant; we have to stay masked; and we have to stay clean," he said.
The school district's plan enables children to return to school safely, Brucken said. "I want to see kids in school. The benefit ... far outweighs the potential detriment brought to us by COVID-19." Those benefits include academics, nutrition, supervision and structure in their lives, which are "incredibly important."
He appealed to the public and parents to do their part after the school day ends and ensure children continue distancing, masking and making good decisions.
The health department fully anticipates some students will be COVID positive, he said.
School hasn't started yet, and some students and staff already are positive, he said. They have not contracted it from school; they've been infected in social interactions outside — pool parties and house parties and going to businesses where they don't mask or practice distancing.
The health department is committed to being "a collaborative, joint resource at all times to keep our kids, teachers and staff ... as safe as possible," Brucken told the board.
Jodie Buckallew, president of the Vigo County Teachers Association, said the administration has worked with VCTA to develop the re-entry plan and amendment. "We are committed to continue a partnership" with the district, school board and principals as the situation evolves, she said.
Ruth Bro, an attorney who has two children in Vigo County schools, raised concerns about in-person instruction at this time. She pointed to health experts who say school cannot open safely if the virus is not under control in the local community; she pointed to rising COVID cases and positivity numbers locally.
In a second public comment period, Melinda Bonnett praised the district and board for its efforts and the number of options it is offering families. While the district is taking much criticism, "There are many, many parents in our community who value you ... We are confident you are weighing all the variables ... We know you are doing the best that you can," she said.
Officials say the numbers attending in-school will be reduced even further by students using a hybrid model or Vigo Virtual Success Academy. At the high school level, officials estimate that numbers in the building at a given time will be in the 40% range.
An announcement on how school will continue after Labor Day will be made later this month.