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Anderson Community Schools students are greeted by staff members as they entered Edgewood Elementary School on the first day back into the classrooms for in-person learning September 28, 2020.

ANDERSON — Anderson Community Schools officials are looking for ways to restart in-person instruction by the end of January.

ACS is the only district serving students in Madison County and surrounding communities that has provided all-virtual instruction for extended periods amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“ACS needs to get back to face-to-face direct instruction,” said interim Superintendent Joe Cronk. “The board has expressed to me their desire to return to this model of instruction as soon as possible.”

ACS is making that decision as other schools, including Frankton Elementary School, which has several classrooms in quarantine, have returned to their buildings.

Like all Indiana schools, ACS went entirely virtual in March when Gov. Eric Holcomb declared an emergency at the start of the pandemic. The stay-at-home orders were intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, which has been fatal for some people.

ACS started the school year all-virtual, attempting to return to in-person instruction for students in preschool through grade 4 attending full-time starting in September, with students in upper grades attending hybrid classes with the intent of returning full-time in October.

However, the predicted spread of COVID-19 in the fall led district officials to return to all-virtual education at all grade levels shortly before Thanksgiving.

Anticipating holiday gatherings that likely would facilitate the spread of the virus, ACS officials made the decision to not return to in-person instruction until well after the beginning of the calendar year. The proposed timeline for return would be when the county is back in orange status, indicating a drop in the number of new COVID-19 cases, or the end of January, whichever is later, Cronk said.

“Our thinking was to extend out past the holiday season enough so that any COVID-19 cases that would arise as a result of social activity during the holidays would manifest before coming back,” he said.

However, since the start of the 2020-21 school year, ACS officials have faced consistent criticism from parents who are weary of trying to provide what they believe is inadequate instruction while working to support their families.

Parent Melanie Robbin challenged school board members at their most recent meeting Jan. 5 to provide an adequate reason for continuing all-virtual education.

“Do not cite county color designations because everyone has figured out how to make it work,” she said. “There are countless districts across the state in red counties that continue to make it happen.”

Robbin, who blamed pressure from the Anderson Federation of Teachers, which she said has received pressure from members who are afraid they will become infected, said ACS’s decision is costing students who are defecting to nearby districts where they can get in-person education.

“This has to stop,” she said. “All across the state, educators are proving that in-person education can be done safely. You are simply choosing not to do it and hurting our students every single day.”

ACS teacher Marissa Tanner told the board that criticism for the substandard education is demoralizing.

“I have tried everything I could to teach my kids. When they weren’t responding to one type of lesson, I changed, when they said there was too much, I cut back,” she said. “COVID has brought to light issues that have been hiding. It has shown us all what is lacking in our communities, our schools and our country.”

Cronk and the board members have agreed with parents.

“The understanding of COVID-19 and its transmission vector is a moving target,” Cronk pointed out. “Despite that fact, kids do better with direct instruction. The need, and we believe the public desire, is to return to that instructional model.”

Among the reasons ACS returned to all-virtual classes was an increase in the number of staff who had to be quarantined and a shortage of substitute teachers, problems other school districts also have faced. But Cronk said this time when students return, district officials will try to have strategies in place to deal with these challenges.

“ACS is seeing a reduction in staff and student cases,” he said. “But, in any case, we are also working on plans to deal with staff absences and a potential lack of subs, much like other schools in the county.”

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

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