PENDLETON — Classes are back in session at South Madison Community School Corp. — and with no mask mandate and buildings accessible to people beyond staff and students for the first time since the pandemic started, it appears school will be more like it was in 2019 than in the years since.
“They’re looking forward to a normal year, which is nice,” Maple Ridge Elementary School Principal Valerie Steger said about staff members on the first day of school, Thursday, Aug. 4. “I think we all are.”
Steger and school staff stood outside the building welcoming students, most of whom wore big smiles, and many of whom gave high-fives and fist-bumps as they passed.
Part of the normal that has returned to school this year are in-person open houses at the elementary level, Steger said, as well the ability to accommodate lunch visitors and classroom volunteers. Teachers are also more eager to plan field trips because of the easing of COVID restrictions, she said.
“We’re back pretty much as we were before the pandemic,” Superintendent Mark Hall said on Friday. “We’re treating it (COVID-19) a lot more like a normal sickness instead of a global pandemic.”
But that doesn’t mean the district — which has three elementary schools, a middle school and a high school — is dropping its guard, he said.
“We’re trying to be smart about things,” he said. “The way we’re approaching it — the Indiana Department of Health puts out, they’re called control measures, and they do that for many, many things. And so we’re just following the control measures from the Indiana State Department of Health.
The district also considers federal recommendations issued through Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local input from Madison County Health Department.
“Essentially, we don’t really have the close contact tracing anymore and we really don’t have the quarantine times anymore,” Hall said. “And so … basically, if you’re sick, you stay out for five days, and then you come back the next five days if you’re masked (when) you’re around people.”
Hall said the district has a range of contingency plans ready to implement if necessary but he doesn’t see that happening.
“We’re kind of just taking it day by day and week by week, and our goal is to stay in school and to do it as safely as possible,” he said. “It’s really always been our goal, we just had to work through a lot different things in the last couple of years.
“We’re going to approach it like we have in the past. I don’t anticipate any district-wide disruptions. It could be building by building and classroom by classroom, that kind of thing.”
The district’s greatest vulnerability, what he described as its “Achilles heel,” is in the area of food service and bus transportation. If a wave of illness struck those areas, it would be difficult to find temporary substitutes quickly because of the specific training and certifications required.
“”We do have those people to a certain extent, but if we would ever have a large, any sort of large outbreak and a lot of actual sickness of those workers, then we might have to pivot to something else. We think we’ve tried to fortify ourselves in both of those cases, so we have backup plans, it just depends how bad it gets.”
He said the district has been fortunate on the teacher front, being fully staffed, with just a couple of instructional assistant positions being open.
The number of students returning to school at South Madison ticked up from last year’s numbers, Hall said.
Enrollment in the spring was 4,415. On Friday, even as there were some additions and subtractions happening in real time, Hall said enrollment stood at 4,555.
He said he thinks the increase will end up being about 100, which is no cause for concern.
In fact, it’s the opposite, he said, as more students means more funding from the state.
“We still have room in our buildings, we still have empty classrooms in our buildings — I know there’s a constant buzz out there that our schools are at capacity, and you can’t put any more kids in our buildings, which isn’t true.
“It’s growth, and we have room for it, so it’s good for us to a certain extent,” he said. “It’s ADM (Average Daily Membership) money, and it’s good for us if we have the space for it.”
Included in the enrollment figure are almost 600 students who don’t live within South Madison district boundaries, which amount to a financial boon for the corporation.
“We welcome those kids, and we have for many, many years,” Hall said. “If we didn’t have those students, we would have declining enrollment.”
“We also need those 600. That’s what I keep trying to tell people, if we didn’t have those 600, that’s a very large chunk of money.”
If growth ever becomes a liability, such as threatening to push the district beyond capacity, the district can dial back on accepting new out-of-district students, he said.
Any such student that is accepted is not asked to leave, he stressed, except in certain cases where there’s just causes, such as significant misbehavior.
“We always make that commitment, that if you’re in, you’re in until you don’t want to be here anymore.”
The first day at Frankton-Lapel Community Schools was set for Wednesday, Aug. 10 (after press time).