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Vigo County approaches a pivotal day in its efforts to restore a degree of normalcy. The community takes that step with a mix of hope and trepidation.

Both emotions are necessary in this time of pandemic.

High school students who chose in-person-style education for the 2020-21 year will return to the classroom on Monday. The students had been attending every other day to reduce the class sizes and the chances of spreading COVID-19 among the teachers, staff and pupils. The resumption of five-days-a-week attendance is the last step of a phased-in plan to bring traditional students back to school in-person. Elementary and middle school students resumed five-days-a-week, in-person studies earlier this fall.

An option for full-time at-home learning continues to be available to students and families who prefer that.

A local COVID-19 task force and the Vigo County Teachers Association assisted Vigo County School Corp. leaders in developing the reentry plan. In announcing the high schoolers' return, the school district emphasized one caveat.

The five-days-a-week attendance depends on the local schools' continued success in limited the spread of the coronavirus.

So far, that has happened. Confirmed coronavirus cases among VCSC students, teachers and staff are occurring at a smaller rate than the rest of the county's general population. County residents overall experienced 163 cases of COVID-19 last week, compared to six in the schools. As of Wednesday, the VCSC reported 17 active cases out of its 13,000-plus in-person students and staff.

Those statistics impress county health officials, VCSC Superintendent Rob Haworth said, but "numbers are rising in Vigo County."

The same is true statewide. On Friday, the Indiana Department of Health reported 2,382 new cases — the highest single-day total since the pandemic emerged in March. It was also the state's first daily total above the 2,000 mark. A total of 3,654 Hoosiers have died from the highly contagious virus.

Why are school districts experiencing lower levels of coronavirus cases than the rest of the Hoosier population? Gov. Eric Holcomb spelled it out in his COVID-19 news conference Wednesday. In a nutshell, school kids, their teachers and school staff are required to wear face masks. And they do.

"Unfortunately, we're learning that our children are leading the way," Holcomb said.

Thus, most cases cropping up in schools come from transmission happening elsewhere in a surrounding community. Large social gatherings or family events without social distancing or face masking are prime drivers of new infections, public health officials say. Indiana has a mask order in place, but it is essentially a recommendation.

Indiana itself is a COVID hotspot. Chicago health officials on Thursday added the Hoosier state to its restricted travel list. A two-week quarantine is required for anyone traveling into Chicago from Indiana, or any Chicagoans returning from Indiana for non-work reasons.

Think that is a Democratic state political tactic? On Wednesday, Ohio's Republican Gov. Mike DeWine imposed a similar restriction on Indiana travelers into and out of the Buckeye state.

A difficult fall and winter lies ahead nationwide. Earlier this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said large family Thanksgiving get-togethers may pose a risk of COVID-19 spread. He cautioned against such gatherings.

Under these circumstances, Indiana continues its path into an almost fully reopened economy under Stage 5 of the governor's plan.

Through their vigilant efforts to mask up, VCSC schools and other districts are making the best of the difficult situation. A resumption of every-day in-person attendance — amid comparatively low numbers of cases — reflects that diligence. Yet, the potential for problems has not lessened. More kids and teachers will be closer together, coming to school from a less masked-up and distanced community as an uncertain season unfolds.

The kids are doing the right things. Their teachers and school workers are too. They could use some help from the rest of us.

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