Schools across Allen County will begin the academic year this week in a way they haven’t since 2019 – with regular operations in place.
Boards for districts including East Allen County Schools and Southwest Allen County Schools have approved plans confirming as much. The COVID-19 policies and procedures that affected the last two years are largely gone, including mask mandates and social distancing.
“It’s not as much a focus on COVID,” EACS Superintendent Marilyn Hissong said while summarizing changes to the Return to School Plan for school board members last month.
Rather, she continued, the protocols are good to fight any disease, such as the flu: “You know, taking the normal precautions, cleaning and disinfecting.”
Mark Daniel of Fort Wayne Community Schools told his school board in July that he looks forward to being “as much back to normal as possible” and seeing the gains students will be able to attain.
“I think this is a pivotal year,” Daniel told The Journal Gazette last week. “We have to reenergize, which means we have to be able to focus on the things we do well, and we’re truly trying to be intentional in our literacy, our numeracy and our well-being.”
Reducing learning gaps in literacy and numeracy – another term for math – is a priority at the nearly 30,000-student district, Daniel said. One student achievement measure – the state’s standardized test, ILEARN – showed less than 18% of FWCS students in grades three through eight performed this past spring at or above proficiency standards for both English/language arts and math.
“We’ve got to move these metrics because our teachers have to see that they are – they’re impactful,” Daniel said, explaining low test scores can also affect teacher morale. “We get in education because we want to make a difference.”
Daniel said the past 2 1/2 years have been draining, both emotionally and physically. “And now it’s like, let’s get back to our purpose and our focus.”
Statewide, foundational learning in English and math is stabilizing or recovering for most students, Katie Jenner, the Indiana secretary of education, said upon the July release of ILEARN scores.
“At the same time,” she said in a statement, “we must continue to aggressively pursue innovative solutions to best support all of our students, especially our students who are still overcoming the challenges posed by the pandemic, as well as students who were underperforming prior to the pandemic.”
Daniel said the work isn’t just on FWCS educators.
“We need community support to make that happen,” he said, suggesting businesses could provide employees a few hours a week to help as instructional assistants or substitute teachers.
In a back-to-school video for SACS families, Superintendent Park Ginder encourages parents to have conversations with their children about proper behavior in the school setting, including on the bus, in class, in hallways and in the cafeteria.
“I hope there’s a rebound in positive behaviors and academic approaches that we definitely saw across the state, influenced by a large number of our students being home,” Ginder told The Journal Gazette.
This academic year also marks the return of a school supply that’s been shelved in recent years – lunch money, Ginder said.
A federal waiver has allowed schools nationwide to feed every student for free since the 2020-21 year, but that ended last academic year.
“Families that think they might qualify for free and reduced lunch and textbooks need to make sure they work with their schools to get registered,” Ginder said.