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Schools reflect on pandemic two years after it started: 'We try to follow the rules as much as we can'

Post-Tribune - 3/25/2022

Mar. 25—Local school administrators, like their counterparts across the country, were watching closely as news in March 2020 focused on the COVID-19 virus reaching the United States.

On a Monday morning in March 2020, school administrators at the Lake Central School Corp. held their weekly meeting and were hoping to make it until spring break before potentially shutting down, superintendent Larry Veracco recalled.

"We were taking a lot of phone calls from people and email correspondents 'well, what are you going to do? What are you going to do? What are you going to do?'" Veracco said.

By that Friday, the district decided to take a four-week break from in-person learning, Veracco said. The district then had to figure out how to establish e-learning.

"The challenge was telling people 'Yeah, we haven't totally prepared you to pivot to an online platform, but now it's a crisis and we need everybody to step up and try to adjust what you're doing to get meaningful lessons,'" Veracco said.

The School City of Hobart pivoted to virtual learning in March 2020, and through the end of that school year teachers taught virtually five days a week, said superintendent Peggy Buffington.

The district was able to accomplish that by ending the school year in early May using waiver days granted by the state and using that time to allow teachers "to do more professional development" with virtual learning for the next school year, Buffington said. The district, which offers students laptops, also started thinking about virtual learning the year prior, she said.

"The polar vortex of 2019 challenged us to use our skills going virtual. We knew we had to be better at this. In the fall of 2020, we actually practiced e-learning deliberately to be proficient at it before the shutdown," Buffington said.

When the pandemic began, most schools were scrambling to figure out how to approach e-learning, said Micah Pollak, associate professor of economics at Indiana University Northwest in Gary who has been tracking COVID data. But, the benefit then was the school year was close to ending, he said.

In the fall of 2020, most schools required masking and offered e-learning were possible, Pollak said. But, at that time, the initial strain of the virus was circulating and children didn't seem to get very sick or require hospitalization, he said.

But, by fall 2021 the delta and omicron variants of the virus were circulating and the variants did start to make children sick, Pollak said.

The current school year saw fewer remote options and a bigger push for in-person learning and disputes over mask wearing, which has lead to many parents choosing private school for their children for more educational options, Pollak said.

"All the stuff they implemented in the fall of 2020 really probably would be needed in the fall of 2021 much more than back in 2020. Because, like everybody else, we were kind of burned out at that point after a year of just trying to get by," Pollak said.

During the 2020-2021 school year, state officials announced a color-coded system schools should follow: counties in blue meant minimal community spread and schools can remain in-person; yellow meant moderate community spread and mask wearing was suggested; orange meant moderate to high community spread and hybrid learning was to be considered; red meant high community spread and all schools should move to virtual learning. The state also had rules for contact tracing and quarantine.

For the current school year, schools were incentivized to require face masks in school buildings by limiting quarantine times for students and staff who caught the virus.

"I thought the state guidelines were pretty reasonable," Pollak said. "I didn't think it was unreasonable to follow them. The problem with it is, for whatever reason, masking became this really controversial issue and the state didn't really want to get involved with saying you need to have masks or not."

Because of that, Pollak said the state created a two-tier guideline for quarantine: one if masks were worn and one if masks weren't worn. But, school officials were not penalized if the guidelines weren't followed, so many created their own policies, he said.

The Munster, Gary, East Chicago, Hammond and Lake Central school districts did a good job following the state guidelines, Pollak said.

By the 2020-2021 school year, Veracco said the district offered e-learning as an option. Last year, Veracco said he believes the district did a better job meeting the needs of elementary school students because it set up a designated e-learning classroom.

During the last school year, the middle and high school teachers offered hybrid e-learning and in-person classes, Veracco said, which meant teachers would pause what they were doing in the classroom to check in with the students online.

"It was a little more cumbersome," Veracco said.

During the 2020-2021 school year, Buffington said the Hobart schools offered virtual or in-person learning. During that school year, the school district implemented a combination of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local health board directives for COVID-19 protocols, she said.

Last school year, about 40% of parents choose virtual learning for their students, which helped the district implement the 6 feet of distancing guideline inside schools, Buffington said.

This school year, 97 students used virtual learning at the start of the year, Buffington said. The district did not require masks at the beginning of the year, but pivoted to requiring masks, she said.

"The state guidelines for quarantine without masks proved to be too much in terms of the number of students in and out of class quarantined. We had to go back to masks to keep students in school. This actually was so difficult on students and teachers," Buffington said. "Students were in all different places of the curriculum as well as learning and needing interventions to prevent loss of learning."

Throughout the pandemic, Veracco said the district did it's best to follow state and federal guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus.

"We try to follow the rules as much as we can, especially when we believe they are crystal clear," Veracco said. "They said it every time, 'this isn't a may provision. This is a you must do this.'"

But, in the fall, five parents filed a lawsuit against the Lake Central School Corp. "to protect their constitutional rights to attend school" with a mask-optional policy. Veracco did not respond to questions about the lawsuit.

In Hobart, parents "were very supportive of the rules and plans each year, which made this unprecedented time easier," Buffington said.

"Superintendents and school boards cannot pick and choose what rules to follow. People would not want that type of governance and leadership where you pick and choose what rules to follow," Buffington said.

As school districts operate within a third year of the pandemic, Pollak said he hopes district officials realize the importance of ventilation in school buildings. Unfortunately, as districts receive federal funds to respond to COVID-19, administrators haven't been touting money spent to improve ventilation, he said.

"It doesn't matter whether we're talking about COVID or influenza or any other virus, that just massively reduces the amount of time kids are out sick and the amount of times they are sick," Pollak said.


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