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ANDERSON — School districts serving K-12 students in Madison County and surrounding communities are starting to announce their plans for the 2020-21 school year, including the reopening of buildings, hybrid in-person and virtual classes, and virtual-only classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The announcements are starting to trickle about two weeks after the Indiana Department of Education released statewide guidelines that incorporate some released even earlier by the Centers for Disease Control. The release of IDOE’s Considerations for Learning and Safe Schools was followed last week by a webinar offered by the state to clarify the plan, a discussion a couple of days later by Madison County superintendents and meeting earlier this week with the Madison County Health Department.

Anderson Community Schools interim Superintendent Joe Cronk on Tuesday became the first to announce the return to in-person classes Aug. 5 in a video on the district’s website. Anderson Preparatory Academy announced in a letter Wednesday that classes there would resume Aug. 6.

The decision was made based on the expectation of IDOE Superintendent Jennifer McCormick and Gov. Eric Holcomb, Cronk told The Herald Bulletin.

“It’s very clear that the expectation is that the state wants kids in school. Kids do better in school,” he said.

The announcement of the plan, Cronk said, also was based on the influence of parents, who want to be able to make plans for their children.

“We were getting parents that were getting frustrated and were going to enroll in other online virtual academies,” he said.

The announcements from the superintendents come ahead of an anticipated announcement early in July by Holcomb.

All three options will be made available to students when classes resume, Cronk said. Though there is a framework for the return to the buildings, he said, there are no definitive plans on paper.

“We have to build the plan while we fly it,” he said.

ACS school buildings already are in the process of being disinfected, he said.

“We are actively cleaning all our surfaces and all our classrooms and all our high-touch surfaces right now. We are cleaning them and sterilizing them for your protection,” he said.

Masks also will be distributed, and their use will be encouraged, Cronk said.

“While we are not mandating their use, we are heavily recommending their use because it’s shown that wearing masks does reduce transmission of the novel COVID-19 virus,” he said.

In response to the district’s announcement Tuesday on its Facebook page, several parents already asserted their children would not be wearing masks.

However, Cronk admitted there are two places where the spread of infection is nearly impossible to control: school buses and cafeterias.

“So masks will be highly effective and highly recommended on school buses in the morning and coming home,” he said.

Regardless of whether families decide to send their children to school or continue their education at home, Cronk said all ACS options will be offered using the same attendance and grading rules.

“Those virtual classes will be using the same academic calendar following the same academic rigor as in-person courses, and they will be facilitated by Anderson Community Schools teachers,” he said.

Unlike the spring when ACS officials distributed weekly packets for students in the early grades, all students who continue their education at home will have access to tablets. Those with a verifiable need also will be allowed to use internet hotspots throughout the district, Cronk said.

“I know the electronic packets weren’t very popular this spring,” he said.

ACS paraeducator Pam McWithey-Delaplane said she believes K-12 districts are in no way prepared to bring the students back to the classroom, especially because the number of COVID-19 cases is not really decreasing in spite of what government officials said. She said she believes the rush back to the classroom by district officials is motivated by threats from lawmakers and banks to pull funding.

“I do know there is not enough room in classrooms to put kids 6 foot apart,” she said. “I am very leery about all of the germs.”

A retired ACS classroom teacher, McWithey-Delaplane said there is no viable way to separate students or to compel them to wear masks.

“They won’t be able to keep their masks on without flipping them across the room and trading them,” she said.

ACS already has trouble finding substitute teachers, so how will the district handle staffing when educators become ill, McWithey-Delaplane said.

In addition, she said, ACS has experience with part-day kindergarten, which she doesn’t believe was particularly successful, so how will officials handle hybrid classes?

In addition, because she is older and at greater risk of complications, McWithey-Delaplane is looking for less risky employment and expects many other ACS employees who are eligible to retire also are considering leaving.

“There are too many unknowns for me,” she said. “I am completely undecided. I am leaning toward not going back.”

Follow Rebecca R. Bibbs on Twitter at @RebeccaB_THB, or call 765-640-4883.

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