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Going to School During a Pandemic: Northwest Indiana Students' Impact from COVID-19 (Part 1)

By: Rocio Villaseñor

Students across Northwest Indiana have now experienced three months of school -- either in-person, e-learning or in some cases hybrid learning due to COVID-19. Schools boards and parents struggled this year to determine what was the best-case scenario for student learning and safety for students, staff and faculty. Whatever the decision, parents were going to bear the brunt of it.

Northwest Indiana elementary and high school student parents and a college student from Lake County, La Porte County and Jasper County discussed e-learning and in-person learning during this back-to-school year, 2020-2021.

School corporations offered parents two to three options for learning methods to choose from this school year, 2020-2021. The options were based on a 38-page document titled “IN-CLASS: COVID-19 Health and Safety Re-entry Guidance” that was released in June by Indiana’s education, health and social services departments. Jennifer McCormick, Indiana’s state superintendent of public instruction, said during a webinar in June, that the document provided recommendations for 180 days of required instructional time, but they were leaving the decision to school boards about fall school reentry. McCormick said this was due to coronavirus being different across Indiana’s 92 counties. During the webinar, some Indiana superintendents said they planned to survey students’ parents to see what is the best learning method that will work best for families in their school district. The Daily 219 interviewed three Northwest Indiana elementary student parents, a high school student parent and a college individual to see what options were offered at their school this fall and how the pandemic has impacted their learning since March. Elementary An elementary student parent from Merrillville, IN in Lake County, who wishes to remain anonymous, has a third grader at Salk Elementary in the Merrillville School District that started school on August 20. The parent who is a working mother said the school sent out emails and a survey. The “first trimester is full remote e-learning Monday through Friday. There has been no formal decision for when or if there is a return to class.” It took her son a week to adapt to e-learning but likes it since it is more interactive now. In March, “it was less formal and limited interaction with the teachers,” and there were no live class sessions then. She added that now her son stays “engaged with the class work and the teachers take the time to assist students who may be struggling with the format.” “I am happy he is not in in-person classes because I value his safety over every other inconveniences it may cause.” The class work has been fine, but scheduling care has been challenging. “Now you need your child present at three or more live sessions a day which can be challenging if you don’t have a regular caregiver to stay on top of work.”

The school’s plan to keep kids and staff safe whenever it reopens is more cleaning after classes. They are also requiring masks, but she was not sure about temperature checks. According to a September 2020 newsletter from Nicholas G. Brown, Merrillville Community School Corporation Superintendent, “Teachers have been attending professional development to ensure the virtual experience provides students meaningful interactions as well as high quality learning experiences.” The school corporation also has parent and family resources like technology and internet connectivity help, free lunches, and other assistance opportunities. Janette A. Chavez, a self-employed mother, said she is grateful to work from home while her sixth grade daughter is e-learning at Kesling Intermediate School in the La Porte Community School Corporation, LPCSC, in La Porte, IN in La Porte County. She started school on August 24. Parents were able to attend live board meetings with the school corporation and emails were sent. There were three options available to parents: in-person, e-learning for nine weeks, and homeschooling for the whole school year. For all three options, the school was offering students Chromebooks. “I chose option number two – e-learning for nine weeks. I guess we can see what happens after that. She’ll probably be sent to school or we can renew another nine weeks, if COVID gets worse.” Chavez said her daughter hates e-learning. “She doesn’t like it. She wants to be in school. She really loves going to school ever since she was little. She sees a lot of her friends did do option one – going to go school. She just thinks it’s not fair that she needs to stay home for nine weeks.” Chavez has a six-month old son which was another reason why she chose option two for her daughter. “I can’t really take a huge risk like that.” Her daughter has not had any problems with e-learning through Zoom this fall. “It’s nice that the teachers have the Zoom conferences with their students in each class period.” However, she recalls that in March, e-learning was different than how it is now. “It was not hard for her to adapt. I think she was more upset more than anything. She likes the social interaction with her friends and teachers...I was also not pleased with e-learning. I felt she didn’t really learn much when they shut down in March up until June. The teachers just asked irrelevant questions to the subject that they were studying.” Now through e-learning her daughter has a routine schedule. She logs in at 7:35 a.m. up until 2:35 p.m. with a lunch break in between. “I just hope that this is not the norm. That this doesn’t continue for a long time because I do want her to go back to school. I just want everything to go back to normal. Hopefully, nobody tests positive in the school system, and she can go to school and we can try to normalize our lives again.” For the students that chose in-person learning, the school is requiring them to wear masks and social distance. Students are not allowed to have lockers. Water fountains have been shut off. The students eat bagged lunches – half in the auditorium and other half in the lunchroom. If someone does test positive for COVID-19, Chavez said the school does have a plan in place. “They will shut down the school and everybody needs to go on to e-learning until it’s clear.” LPCSC had an update on September 2. They will now adopt “the new system that assesses each county for COVID-19 spread using a new set of metric and corresponding color codes,” that is being used by the Indiana State Department of Health. LPCSC is currently operating under a blue Covid-19 spread level which means 0-.9 over a 7-day period. Carolina Juarez, a working mother, from Wheatfield, IN in Jasper County said her two children began e-learning on August 24. Juarez did not want to share the school her children attend, but did say she has a first grader and fourth grader. Juarez said the school had meetings and sent out emails about her two options: in-person and e-learning. “I chose e-learning because I have other people to worry about with COVID. And I don’t want to risk getting sick myself. If my kids get sick, then I get sick. And if I get sick, I can’t work and pay my bills.” “I’ll just rather do e-learning instead of putting my kids’ lives at risk,” Juarez emphasized. She mentioned e-learning will be the whole school year. Her children’s schedule for e-learning on Zoom is from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. They feel confident about e-learning because they are receiving one-on-one sessions with the teacher. “They are getting more attention. But they do miss interactions with other students. They miss going to classrooms. I know my oldest misses having her own desk. She has told me that herself. It’s not the same.” Juarez mentioned that one of her concerns was the internet connection and if the website crashes during e-learning. Remote learning in March “was complete chaos,” Juarez said. “We didn’t know when the kids were going to be coming back. Some people were concerned about bringing their kids back. It was a little depressing because it was my younger daughter’s first year in school. She was really enjoying Kindergarten when the whole pandemic started. She was upset she didn’t have a lot time with her teacher.” It took her children a while to adapt to the coronavirus and remote learning situation. “I had to constantly remind them why we are doing it, and why things are happening.” Juarez was grateful she put her children in e-learning because at the beginning of the school year within the first three days, there were three positive cases of COVID-19. She said the school was shut down for two weeks. According to a report published in August and will be updated by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association and a study also published in August in the Journal of Pediatrics, children can easily get and spread the coronavirus. The school has mask and social distance requirements, but Juarez is not sure about temperature checks. According to Jasper County’s website, they have a COVID-19 Screening for Parents guidance, plan when student or staff can return to school, and they follow the Indiana State Department of Health’s Preparation for a Positive Student/Staff: K-12 Schools.

Next week, we talk with high school parents about their family’s early experiences.

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