School leaders hope for return to normalcy this fall

School leaders across the county are hoping students and teachers will be able to see each other’s faces when they return to classrooms in July and August.

While most school leaders have yet to finalize plans for the school year — those will likely come out in mid-July — there is hope that schools may be able to ease masking and social distancing guidelines. Schools also learned some lessons during the more than year-long pandemic they plan to carry with them into the new school year.

Students will likely not have to wear masks in school, said Kent DeKoninck, outgoing superintendent.

“It doesn’t appear at this point we would be requiring masks to be in school, but the level we require them would be at the recommendation of the health department,” DeKoninck said.

At Center Grove schools, there is also some anticipation of masks being optional rather than mandated, said Rich Arkanoff, superintendent.

“At this point, we are anticipating masks will be optional,” Arkanoff said. “The school board will make that decision in July, and it depends on guidance from the (Indiana) Department of Health and Johnson County. Masks would be optional except on (school buses). That’s a federal mandate, unless that changes.”

The federal order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires masks on all forms of shared transportation, including school buses.

School leaders from other Johnson County districts, such as Indian Creek schools, have indicated it’s too early to make determinations on the upcoming school year, and those plans will be made next month.

“We need to study and sit patiently and see how much will change as conditions change with the virus and the pandemic,” said Andy Cline, assistant superintendent. “Our hope is we are coming back to school as normal as possible, whatever that normal will be.”

Guidance from the Indiana Department of Health says vaccinated students can go without masks and don’t have to quarantine if they come in close contact with someone who has COVID-19. The guidance for unvaccinated students remains similar to what it was during the school year, with masks required indoors but students able to go maskless in all but the most crowded outdoor situations.

COVID-19 vaccines are available to children ages 12 and older.

The Johnson County Health Department will likely wait until July to advise schools on protocol, awaiting any additional guidance from the state, and consultation with new health officer Jefferson Qualls, said Betsy Swearingen, the county health department’s director.

“We will wait to see on July 1 what new guidance goes down and make decisions from there,” Swearingen said. “We will continue to support whatever Gov. (Eric) Holcomb decides.”

Johnson County schools have shied away from any vaccine requirements, and any such requirement for athletes would likely come from the Indiana High School Athletic Association, or IHSAA, Arkanoff said.

“I don’t foresee (a requirement),” Arkanoff said.

Regardless of whether a student participates in extracurricular activities or not, it is important for them to get the vaccine if they are eligible, Swearingen said.

There are certain practices that schools will continue post-pandemic.

At Clark-Pleasant schools, for example, students will continue eating breakfast in the classroom, and there will likely still be an online option for parent-teacher conferences, said Connie Poston, behavioral health director.

“With parent-teacher conferences, we previously required everything in person,” she said. “Having virtual conferences and an in-person combination is something we can continue with moving forward for parents not able to make the trip in person.”

Center Grove schools will continue to let students spread out during lunch, Arkanoff said.

“At the high school, we will probably utilize the Hall of Excellence to spread out,” he said. “We did that for COVID, but we found it to be nice. At Middle School North, we utilized additional spaces for their cafeteria and had fewer discipline issues.”

Virtual learning — a staple of the pandemic — will continue to be an option at Greenwood schools, DeKoninck said.

“We learned through the pandemic distance learning can continue to be a challenge,” DeKoninck said. “We believe face-to-face learning will be the most impactful and, at the same time, we want to continue to help families during the transition year of COVID so they can feel supported in getting education in the manner they feel most comfortable.”

Center Grove and Edinburgh schools will also have a virtual option, while decisions about online learning at Franklin and Indian Creek schools have not been made yet, school officials said.

Clark-Pleasant schools will no longer offer a virtual option as it did during the pandemic, Poston said.

“The only reason we became a player in the virtual learning world was because of restrictions due to COVID,” Poston said. “With those being lifted and a great number of Hoosiers becoming vaccinated, it will allow us to return to instruction (the way it was) prior to COVID.”