MCCSC board expected to finalize school re-opening plan at Tuesday night’s board meeting

On Monday morning, a half dozen people showed up at the Monroe County health department’s temporary location in the Showers building on Morton Street.

They held signs with slogans like, “Shut it down, now! Start over! Do it right!” They were  advocating for a stronger statement from health officials on the question of re-opening schools.

They’re concerned about a start to the school year amid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the area, and across the state.

News reporters narrowly outnumbered demonstrators. Organizer Debbie Fish, a former teacher and educational professional, said she expects a stronger continent at a rally planned for Tuesday at the district’s education resource center on Miller Drive.

That’s where the board will be meeting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, partly in-person and partly by videoconference.

Fish said she is concerned that if schools start up now, and teachers have to go back into the classroom, some will take the semester off. There may be some who will just quit the profession of teaching, Fish fears.

Early in the meeting, the agenda for Tuesday includes a re-entry plan overview by superintendent Judith DeMuth and a board discussion with possible modifications. A resolution on adopting a plan for re-opening schools is the final point of business, after a dozen other business items.

The meeting will be live-streamed at www.mccsc.edu/boardmeeting

The board’s Tuesday decision is expected to be based on potential additional information presented by the teachers union and the county health health department.

Monday’s demonstrators were calling for more specific guidance from the health department that could lead the school board to delay the start of the school year, or to adopt an on-line-only approach to instruction.

That kind of direction does not appear likely. About the possibility that the department would issue stronger guidance, Monroe County health administrator Penny Caudill responded Monday to a question from The Square Beacon. Caudill’s statement said, in part, “No environment is risk free. Having options for in-school or on-line allows families to make decisions that they are most comfortable with.”

A choice of in-school or on-line instruction is part of MCCSC’s current approach. The option for five days a week of in-school instruction—instead of just some days—was added as an amendment at the board’s meeting on July 21.

The five-day-in-school option was approved on a split vote, with dissent from board members Jacinda Townshend Gides and Brandon Shurr.

At this Tuesday’s meeting, three different motions, made by Shurr last week but tabled, could be taken up off the table for consideration by the board. One would delay the start date for MCCSC school year.

Another motion from Shurr would follow an approach similar to the one taken by a district in Indianapolis (Metropolitan School District of Washington Township), to hold classes only online to start the year.

The third motion made by Shurr last week, but tabled by the board, was to reconvene all the committees that had worked on the re-entry plan and create a new plan for the district.

In making the motions, Shurr said he was responding to the many emails board members had received and an online petition that had been signed by around 2,000 people. The petition calls for a delay to the start of instruction, online-only instruction, and for establishing clear guidelines on “how the district will use local, state, and other reputable data to make decisions for the future.”

A call for a clear explanation of how data will be used in decision making was also part of a press release that was issued Monday morning by four different organizations, including the Indiana Coalition for Public Education — Monroe County.

The statement calls on Indiana governor Eric Holcomb, the state’s department of health, and the department of education to develop locally defined metrics that can be used to determine when it is safe to open schools, and when schools should be closed.

Possibilities for such metrics mentioned in the press release are raw numbers of cases or a rate of cases per 100,000 people. Trends in cases over a period of weeks, and positive testing rates are other possibilities mentioned in the release.

One attendee at Monday’s demonstration is a faculty member at Indiana University’s school of public heath. Julius Hanks teaches in the department of kinesiology, so epidemiology is not his specialty. But there are specialists in the community, Hanks said, including some in the Monroe County health department. And the school board needs to use them as resources, he said.

Hanks was responding to some remarks made by a school board member at last week’s meeting, who said board members aren’t public health professionals or experts.

On the question of how to re-open, Hanks said, “We have angry parents, we have concerned parents, we have people on both sides of the fence—whether you’re talking about teachers, business owners, people in different industries.” Hanks continued, “It’s not really about sides. … To me, it’s about using the resources and the experts who can speak on these topics with expert opinions.”

Hanks added, “What’s most important are the experts in the in this field, who can give some some credence to the concerns.”

On his participation in the demonstration, Hanks referred to his two sons, one who attends University School and the other who’s headed to Jackson Creek Middle School. “It’s so important that [my sons] know what social activism is. It’s not just yelling, it’s not just holding up signs. I said, There’s not going to be violence. It’s not going to be yelling. But our presence is showing the importance of the health and safety of our community.”

Another demonstrator on Monday was former Bloomington North High School English teacher, April Hennessey, who is the parent of two students in the district. She told The Square Beacon that last week’s amendment to the district’s re-entry plan—to allow for five-days a week of face-to-face instruction—felt to some parents like a “bait-and-switch.”

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On Monday, at Election Central on the corner of Madison and 7th streets, April Hennessey turned in petitions to become a candidate for MCCSC school board. (Dave Askins/Square Beacon)

After the demonstration, Hennessey turned in her petitions as a candidate for school board this year. She had at least 10 valid signatures for a candidacy in District 2, county election officials confirmed to the Square Beacon on Monday afternoon. The incumbent for District 2 is Sue Wanzer.

According to the county election office, the only other candidate to submit petitions so far is District 6 incumbent Jacinda Townshend Gides.

At last week’s board meeting, several administrators said they have been preparing for a scenario in their buildings where all students would be arriving for face-to-face instruction five days a week. So they are confident that they can maintain adequate social distancing with the kind of mixed online-in-person instruction the district is planning to implement.

Bloomington South High School principal Mark Fletcher said the initial returns of a student survey indicate about 20 percent of students prefer the online-only option—with another 20 percent who like the “hybrid” option, and 60 percent who want to come back every day.

The 20 percent of students who would receive instruction only online represent a kind of extra buffer. That’s based on the idea that preparations for physical distancing have been made assuming all students would attend in person.

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