WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) - It was almost a full crowd at West Lafayette Intermediate School Wednesday evening as parents and staff heard Superintendent Dr. Rocky Killion explain his plan for reopening the school district in August. The board ultimately voted to approve the plan at the end of the meeting.
Above the heads of masked people in the socially distant audience sitting in the cafeteria is mural for "The Recipe of Life." Ingredients include patience (staying calm in a trying, tedious or annoying situation), cooperation (working together to complete a goal) and caring (feeling and showing concern for others).
These are all traits Dr. Killion is asking of the members of the WLCSC family in the coming weeks.
"Indiana schools have been given an impossible task," he said.
The impossible task of trying to reopen schools in the middle of a pandemic. Governor Eric Holcomb made the official announcement in June. Dr. Killion released the plan on Tuesday.
"I think you would be hard pressed to find other school districts that released their plan prior to the board meeting," he said.
This is a challenge WLCSC parent Heather Hensley acknowledges.
"There is absolutely nothing that they can say that will keep everybody happy, especially when everyone feels so strongly about it," she said.
Despite this, Hensley has concerns for her three kids that could be going back to West Lafayette Elementary School in August. She has a child with a medical condition that would make them high-risk in a school environment. And with two other young kids at home and her husband, she has concerns for her family of seven.
"With the way things are, as they were outlined in the plan that was released yesterday we're not very comfortable with the idea of returning to school," she said.
A full E-learning option will only be provided to students who get a medical exemption for themselves or someone in their family. Hensley said she is considering applying for that. But she added that they are an all-or-none family; either all her children will go back to school or none of them will. She said she and other families were holding out hope for a virtual option available for anyone who wanted it.
"We spent all summer really banking on that e-learning thing so that was really a big shock to see we weren't really going to be offered that possibility without the medical exemption," she said.
WLCSC parents have started a petition advocating for a more open remote learning option. Tippecanoe School Corporation's plan is allowing a virtual option where families only have to select that preference at online registration. The families are then committing to minimum of one semester coursework. Only students who attend class in person will be able to participate in extracurricular activities.
"This plan is a first step and we have to start somewhere," said Dr. Killion.
He said they are going with the medical exemption option because they don't have enough staff or resources to provide both options fully. He said it isn't fair to ask his teachers to do a full day of in-person teaching just to have to go home and do an online teaching as well. He also said during the school board meeting that if kids are not in school, they will face having to cut teachers that aren't needed.
Students will do staggered days for the first four days of school before going back to school fully with a built in e-learning day. Dr. Killion said they are still required by law to do 180 days of teaching, with five hours at the elementary school and six hours at the intermediate and high school. He said during the meeting, mathematically, they couldn't continue doing staggered days all year and still meet that 180 day requirement.
Dr. Killion emphasized that this plans is a living document that will most likely change. He worked with the other school districts in the county as well as local health leaders to come up with this first plan.
"We have implemented the protocols that as suggested by the CDC, by the Indiana Department of Education and it has been reviewed by Tippecanoe County health officials," he said.
Indiana's public schools are under the control of the Indiana Department of Education. Dr. Killion said WLCSC can't mandate things that IDOE hasn't said they are allowed to mandate, such as requiring masks at all times. West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis has voiced support for a potential requirement of masks in the city. If such a requirement were to happen, WLCSC would not have to comply with municipal mandates.
As the current plan reads, students will be required to have a mask on them. They will only be required to wear it in certain situations where social distancing isn't possible, or in large classes such as choir or band. WLCSC has also given power to the teachers to require masks in their classrooms. However, due to the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education, schools can't tell a student they aren't allowed to come school for not wearing a mask.
Marydell Forbes representing the West Lafayette Education Association spoke at the board meeting.
"I'm here to advocate for the most vulnerable in our population and that would be your educators and your staff," she said.
She said they conducted a survey of their members and found that more than 50% of WLCSC educators are immunocompromised, or live at home with someone who is immunocompromised. She asked the board to consider PPE options and alternative teaching for the staff who want it.
"Please consider N95 masks for at-risk staff who request it, consider plexiglass shields for at-risk staff who request it, consider possibly moving the most vulnerable staff to classrooms with windows for air circulation or give them the option to teach from home," she said.
Several other parents also stood up at the board meeting asking for a virtual option available for all who want it. They also expressed concerns about being able to social distance safely.
Hensley said she is so grateful for all the hard work the teachers and staff at WLES did for her kids last semester. She also said her kids thrived while doing school from home. Dr. Killion said more will come to light about the process for getting approved for virtual learning with a medical condition. However, Hensley said she and her family are considering the possibility of a homeschooling option.
As the mural shows in the WLIS cafeteria, Dr. Killion is asking for people's patience, compassion and understanding as the district moves forward
"If everyone comes together, wears their mask, practices personal hygiene, social distances as best as possible and stays home when ill, then I think that we have a very good chance of opening school and keeping everyone safe," he said.
Six board members voted in favor of the plan. Board member Melissa Prochnau was the only one to vote against it. News 18 asked for her comment after the meeting but she declined.
Families will be able to register early for the new school year starting on July 20th. They will be able to take a live survey, which will give the corporation a better idea of what direction parents want the school to go with the plan. He said they will also be able to solidify plans more after registration, once they know how many kids are actually coming back this school year. He said they should have an update at the next school board meeting scheduled for August 3rd.