Students across Indiana are returning to class for a third year impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as public health officials change safety recommendations and challenge plans already in place by school leaders.
A day before MSD Wayne Township Schools opened its classrooms to students, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Marion County Public Health Department announced recommendations for everyone to wear masks in schools -- even if someone is fully vaccinated.
Leaders at Wayne responded by being the first district in the county to update its COVID-19 protocols and require all individuals in kindergarten and above to wear a mask most of the time if they are not fully vaccinated. Previously, it was required for students in grade three and above.
At Wayne, masks are recommended for fully vaccinated students and staff.
Currently, Marion County school districts are allowed by the local health department to set their own protocols. Gov. Eric Holcomb said he won’t reimpose any mask mandates on schools.
“In this climate that we're in politically, it'll be a stretch I think for anyone in any kind of power or authority to reinstate the mask mandate," said Wayne Township Superintendent Jeff Butts said Tuesday morning before the CDC’s announcement. "It's so divisive at this point, and quite frankly -- even with the guidelines that we have -- I’m receiving an equal number of phone calls on both sides
“Those that really are disappointed and angry that we're making children wear masks at all, and those who are disappointed and angry that we're allowing them to take them off when they're in their pods or not actually having them carry around their vaccination card to prove that they've been vaccinated.”
Despite the fluid health recommendations and Indiana’s increase of COVID-19 cases due to the delta variant, some students had regular first day jitters at Stout Field Elementary School. Sixth grade Wayne Township student Nate said he was a little nervous, but mostly excited to go back to school in-person.
“Because I get to see my friends again,” Nate said. “And I'm nervous about seeing new teachers and new people -- meeting new people.”
His teacher, Gretchen McIntyre, is starting her 18th year as an educator. The Stout Field writing and reading teacher said she’s excited to reconnect with students.
“When we are at recess or when they're doing independent work, I like to just talk to them about, you know, what's something that you did over the summer,” McIntyre said. “Just having those conversations that don't necessarily have to do with the procedures and all of that, which they sort of get overwhelmed with today. But having those friendly conversations -- what's going on in your life?”
Although some students and teachers are vaccinated, interactions at school will still be different than before the pandemic.
District Mask Policy
Each Wayne Township elementary classroom is expected to have roughly four to five pods -- small groups of roughly four to six desks -- spread throughout one classroom. K-6 students will not have to wear a mask when they are working in their pods. The groups will be three to six feet apart to reduce the number of students who are in contact without a mask.
Butts said they are allowing students to take off their masks to help make learning easier.
“There were some challenges when students had their masks on -- being able to engage with a teacher, being able to engage with their peers,” Butts said. “We know that there’s a significant uptick in mental health concerns with all ages of our population, but especially with our children, as we're trying to help them developmentally. It's hard to teach and learn reading when you can't see somebody's face and lips and expressions. And we gain so much interacting with our peers and with each other when we can see some of those nonverbal expressions.”
The youngest students aren't the only ones who struggled last year. Nate said one of the reasons he’s excited about this school year is because he gets to learn in-person again.
“[Last year] we kept going online and then offline. And then in-person. And it just got, like, my mindset messed up,” Nate said.
Butts said the school district is “on an honor system,” so people do not have to show their vaccination card. However, if a student is in contact with someone else who has COVID-19, they will have to present their vaccination card in order to avoid being quarantined. And Butts hope having students in pods will make contact tracing easier.
“With the students in their pods, that gives them the opportunity to be together, to work together, [and] to do so without their mask,” Butts said. “And allows us to contact trace if there is a positive case.”
Students who do not want to be in a school with a mask on can transition to the district’s Achieve Virtual Education Academy.
Other COVID-19 Protocols
The district will continue to use personal protective equipment -- such as desk dividers, face shields and masks -- which were donated and purchased last year with federal funds. The district plans to use the latest round of federal funding to help purchase more.
Wayne Township will also continue to track COVID-19 cases and quarantines through a dashboard on the district website. Butts said he hopes these precautions will help prevent students from returning to virtual learning this year.
“Our goal is to keep our students in classes and in the buildings the whole year, and we want them to be there to learn,” Butts said. “So if we need to take additional precautions, if we need to change our protocols as a result of what we're seeing in the data, then we will. But it's important for us -- we can't go through a year like we had last year. We can't be closing buildings down and sending kids home all the time.”
Butts said there is more possibility for lost learning when students are remote, rather than in class. Only about 11 percent of Wayne students in grades 3-8 passed both parts of the state’s math and English ILEARN exam this year.
The district is using federal funding to add an additional 92 positions to help with reading, language acquisition, and to hire social emotional learning coaches to provide mental health support.
Butts said the district currently has about 60 vacant positions.
Biggest Challenges This School Year
For Nate, he said trying to remember everything he has and will learn will probably be his biggest challenge this year.
Both Butts and McIntyre agreed that the biggest challenges for this year will be navigating the changing COVID-19 guidance on a local and national level, and working to best support all students and families.
“I think we're still going to be chasing this for a little while,” Butts said. “And that's probably the hardest part just because there is no right answer. There. There are so many different thoughts out there and different protocols and beliefs that people have.”
After roughly a year and a half of switching back and forth to online and in-person classes, McIntyre said she’s prepared to switch back to virtual learning if needed.
“We did it last year so we can go with the flow,” McIntyre said.
Update: This story was updated Thursday, July 29 to reflect the change in mask policy at the MSD Wayne Township Schools.