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ANDERSON — The Anderson Community Schools board on Tuesday voted unanimously to open schools entirely virtually and reassess around Sept. 9 whether a return to in-person instruction is possible in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

District officials last month announced they would offer in-person as well as virtual options for parents who are uncomfortable with sending students back to the buildings.

“I think everyone understands we’re not in a win-win situation,” said board member Jeff Barranco, who made the motion.

The vote comes one day after the board of the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township in Indianapolis voted to offer only virtual education for the foreseeable future.

Following that decision, ACS officials posted a non-scientific mini-poll of parents, 61% of whom said they believe school should be online-only, said ACS Superintendent Joe Cronk. The mini-survey was expanded to include teachers, some of whom are ACS parents, on Tuesday.

Patrick Hill, president of the ACS board of trustees, said at the board meeting Tuesday that the mini-survey was not intended as a decision-making tool.

“The survey that was put forth was just taking a temperature of the community,” he said.

The district fielded nearly 4,000 responses to the mini-survey.

The safety of reopening schools has become a hot topic over the past couple of weeks from the national level down to the local level. Parents and teachers are concerned about the spread of COVID-19 caused by the novel coronavirus among students who can infect teachers and older family members as well as others with medical conditions that could lead to complications if they become ill.

However, President Donald J. Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last week threatened to deny federal funding to any districts that refused to reopen.

The state’s Department of Education last month released Indiana’s Considerations for Learning and Safe Schools, a guidance document to help schools plan for reopening. Madison County superintendents on July 1 issued a joint letter outlining their plans.

Cronk said earlier in the day the district’s reopening plan is a living document and always subject to change, depending on the needs of students and families.

“I think right now we’re pretty solid on our reentry plan,” he said. “We’ll make in-flight adjustments. We’re writing the playbook as we play the game.”

Many factors went into the decision of whether students should return for in-person learning, including some needs beyond academics, including the safety of students whose parents need to return to work, nutrition for students and their safety in a high-stress situation, Cronk said.

“I just thought it was good to survey under current conditions,” Cronk said. “We just like to gauge what our families are thinking as we get closer to the reopening of school.”

He said the Aug. 5 start date is firm and will not be reconsidered, though the way education is delivered may be.

“The start date will always be the same. It’s just how we start that would be different,” he said. “We will always keep that the same because we have to go 180 days, and the breaks are already scheduled.”

Though none reported delaying in-person instruction, most of Madison County’s superintendents gave virtually an identical response when asked whether they are considering an online-only option. Each, including Mark Hall, superintendent at South Madison Community Schools, said they plan to reopen on the pre-approved date and would monitor and react to community spread of the coronavirus.

“Through consultation with the Madison County Health Department, we will assess the current level of spread and then react accordingly,” he said.

Bobby Fields, superintendent at Frankton-Lapel Community Schools, said if his district is in the low or no spread category, the plan is to return to a full reopening of school, but if the town spread is deemed in minimal or moderate category, the district will move to its plan of 50% occupancy to facilitate social distancing. However, if the community experiences “substantial” spread, the district will move to e-learning for everyone, he said.

Fields noted Madison County communities also are in a different situation than Marion County and Washington Township schools.

“The statistics in our area do not call for us to close school at this time. We are not scheduled to start until August 13th,” he said. “This is such a fluid situation, though, I realize things could change in a month, hopefully for the better.”

Regardless of how things stand with community spread, Amanda Ritenour said she prefers her daughter, Morgan, 17, who will be a senior at Anderson High School, to continue her education virtually. But Morgan is torn between wanting to be safe and not missing out on the sports she loves, including swimming, archery and volleyball.

“You want to do what’s right, and you want to protect your kids,” she said. “I just hate sending her because I’m scared she’s going to get sick and bring it home to all of us. It’s the safest thing I feel. Because you’re putting the teachers in harm’s way, you’re putting the families in harm’s way.”

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

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