Marion Community Schools (MCS) moved one step closer to beginning the school year Tuesday when its school board formally approved the district’s start of schools plan.

MCS students have the option to return to on-site learning at district buildings or receive instruction remotely through the Giant Online Academy.

“We are so much more ready than we were in March. We are prepared for outstanding experience at home online learning, and we’re prepared for the best possible experience on campus,” Superintendent Brad Lindsay said. “We’re prepared but we are very conscious that this COVID is serious business. We take it very seriously, and we’re going to be very, very alert. We’re going to be responsive and cooperative working with our families and working with our county.”

Students will be able to transfer to virtual learning or back to on-site instruction, according to Stephanie Lockwood, principal of Justice Intermediate School and McCulloch Junior High School. She said there are any number of scenarios where students would transfer between the two modes of learning, and the district is “ready and equipped” to meet the needs of families to promote health and safety.

“It is our main goal to work with every one of our families to help them meet their individual needs that fits into what we are doing here at Marion Community Schools,” Lockwood said. “So we have things set up for them too if they need to go into virtual learning for one reason or another, we have made that flow of that be easily done. If they start off with virtual learning and decide they want to come back into the school for on site learning, we are asking that there be a little bit of a delay in that, just a few days, so we can best prepare for that student re-entering the classroom.”

Lindsay noted that any student learning from home will still be eligible and have full access to district teachers, social workers and special education teachers and aides as well as district programs like athletics, band, JROTC and school clubs.

For students in the Giant Online Academy, an iPad and other at-home instructional materials will be provided and there will be regular connection with students and teachers, according to MCS reopening plan documents. Families are expected to be committed and frequently communicating with school staff, and different grade levels will have different structures of how instruction is delivered virtually, including live and recorded lessons, Google Classroom collaboration, direct connection with teachers and the Plato platform.

The first day of school will be Aug. 5 for kindergarten through 12th grade, with preschool beginning Aug. 10.

Students attending in-person will be expected to attend five days a week with school day start and end times remaining the same from last year. While attendance will be taken, there will be no attendance awards given to encourage parents to keep their children home if they are sick.

The use of face masks by staff and students will be strongly recommended at all times, especially during situations like when riding a bus when social distancing may not be possible. Riverview Elementary School Principal Ashlee Dixon said parents are encouraged to provide students with masks, but the district will also be providing masks that will stay at the schools and be washed daily.

“We have a plan in the elementary schools to where they have a lanyard for their masks and they have a special location for that so that it is available to them and then we will have the chance to, you know, during their 90 minute reading block where they’re in their seats and social distanced where we can take those and wash those and make sure they are taken care of,” she said.

Dixon said preschool through fourth grade students will be grouped and kept in cohorts that will stay together throughout the school day and try to adhere to social distancing as much as possible. Art teachers and other instructors for special classes will rotate to each classroom rather than students moving to classes “to limit the interaction between the whole building.”

“Upon arrival, the parents will drop the kids off and they’ll go straight to the classroom where they’ll get breakfast and then they’ll stay in their class. They’ll take classroom restroom breaks,” Dixon said. “The teacher is going to come to them. And we’ll distance and sanitize and make sure we use strict hygiene when students are handling materials.”

Elementary buildings will have more lunch periods so students can stay within their cohorts, and the gyms and cafeterias will be used for lunchtime for social distancing, Dixon said. Children receiving school lunches will order meals in the morning, and their lunches will be in to-go containers at their seats when they go to lunch.

“During recess, those cohorts will play together and they’ll play in zones to encourage social distancing and...if they’re using equipment it will be cleaned and sanitized properly after,” Dixon said. “At dismissal, we will be staggering our dismissal of students between bus riders, walkers and car riders and so that the students will stay with their classroom cohorts until they’re dismissed to the appropriate location.”

Since cohorts are not as feasible for grades five through 12 due to the variety of classes offered, Lockwood said middle and upper grades will follow a block schedule of three 90-minute periods and one 50-55 minute class period per day.

“So we’ll have purple and gold days. So on a purple day, you may go to like first, second, third and seventh periods and then a gold day you would go to fourth, fifth, sixth and then seventh periods,” Lockwood said. “With our classroom procedures, obviously we’ll have students separated as much as we possibly can. All students will be facing the same way.”

The block schedule will decrease the amount of time spent in hallways and passing periods and also allows for more advisory/homeroom time with students to foster a relationship with teachers and focus on social/emotional well being, Lockwood said.

“We have different entrances where bus riders go in, walkers, or car riders go in, so once they enter into the building they will also receive a sack breakfast and ... they will get a chance to stop at lockers, drop off backpacks, and then go on to first period,” Lockwood said.

There will be four lunch periods at fifth through 12th grade buildings to allow better social distancing, and students will go directly to their seats and then be dismissed table by table to pick up their food for the day. Dismissal will also be staggered between bus riders, car riders and walkers as well as students in extracurriculars going to designated areas before being released to their activities.

On-site students will have scheduled e-learning days where they work on their iPads from home on Sept. 25, Oct. 9, Nov. 13 and March 12 to help students get used to working from home should any needed closures be implemented later.

Lockwood said each building’s nurse’s office will be comprised of one room for students showing COVID-19 symptoms, one room for kids not feeling well but without COVID-19 symptoms and a third room for other reasons like needing a Band-Aid for a scraped knee. All staff and students will be encouraged to self-screen each day for symptoms of COVID-19, and Lindsay said District Nurse Sue Nicholson will be providing further guidance to staff and families about self screening.

Students riding school buses will be assigned a specific bus stop and bus number and will be grouped on the bus with siblings and others from their bus stop with assigned seats, Dixon said. Face masks are strongly encouraged for students riding the bus.

“So basically if students are picked up at one stop they will stay together, so it’s basically like cohorting or bubbling within the bus similar to what we’re doing in the schools,” Dixon said.

MCS Director of Communications Patricia Gibson said while busing will still be available to all those who would traditionally be eligible, the district is encouraging families who are able to to consider car pickup and dropoff to reduce the amount of students on the bus.

Gibson stressed that flexibility will be key as guidelines from state and local health departments shift and the pandemic continues.

“We have really, really appreciated the relationship we have with the health department and if people hear nothing else I really hope they hear that flexibility, be prepared to be flexible this year because we absolutely know that change will come,” she said.

Dixon said communication will also be important between families and staff members, noting all of the new guidelines and procedures are being put in place to keep students and staff healthy and safe.

“We’re very excited to see our kids. For us, this is the longest we’ve ever gone without having our kids in the building,” she said. “If we follow those guidelines and communicate and do what we’re supposed to, then I believe the longer we’re going to be able to keep them in our buildings, and that’s where they need to be and that’s important.”

According to reopening documents, MCS will work with state and local health officials to contact trace if there is a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a school building. The district will also follow specific cleaning protocols for rooms, buildings and buses and communicate with families about any altered procedures or closures of buildings.

Board members thanked district administrators and staff for the work that went into crafting the reopening plans.

For more details on the reopening plans, visit marion.k12.in.us. The plan is subject to change as state and local health guidelines dictate.

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