Greenfield-Central High School students navigate between classes earlier this week. Students were told to stay home starting on Thursday, Jan. 13 and won’t return to school until Tuesday, Jan. 18, providing what Superintendent Harold Olin called a “natural reset” for tamping down the spread of COVID in the school. Staff photo by Tom Russo
Greenfield-Central High School students navigate between classes earlier this week. Students were told to stay home starting on Thursday, Jan. 13 and won’t return to school until Tuesday, Jan. 18, providing what Superintendent Harold Olin called a “natural reset” for tamping down the spread of COVID in the school. Staff photo by Tom Russo
HANCOCK COUNTY — A second school system in the county has closed doors this week amid the ongoing COVID-19 surge.

Southern Hancock closed its buildings today (Friday, Jan. 14) and called for a district-wide e-learning day due to spiking student and staff absences. Greenfield-Central High School is in its second day of virtual learning for a similar reason. Both corporations hope the closures along with the weekend and holiday on Monday will provide enough time to flatten the curves they’re experiencing ahead of anticipated returns next Tuesday. The rising number of cases has other districts in the county keeping a cautious watch over their numbers as well.

Wes Anderson, director of school and community relations for Southern Hancock, said 16% of the district’s students were absent Thursday. He couldn’t break down how much of that total was due to COVID-19, and said it was for all reasons, including other illnesses.

“On top of COVID, it’s also just January,” Anderson said. “It is that time of year.”

He does anticipate that last week and this week will have the school corporation’s highest COVID caseloads of the pandemic by a high margin, however.

Southern Hancock’s staff absence rate Thursday was 19%, Anderson continued, adding the majority of that was due to COVID-19.

The absences prompted the school corporation to call for an e-learning day, during which students log onto devices to access assignments. E-learning differs from virtual learning, during which students and teachers use cameras on their devices to conduct class from their homes.

“We have so many staff that are sick we can’t even facilitate that,” Anderson said of virtual learning.

Recent federal and state guidelines allow those who test positive for COVID-19 to conclude isolation after five days if symptoms are resolving and a mask is worn for five days (Southern Hancock requires masks in all its schools). Anderson noted having no in-person school on Friday, plus the weekend and then Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday will allow many teachers who have recently tested positive for COVID-19 to achieve enough isolation time.

“The nice thing with the five days is that we can get teachers back to work sooner,” he said.

Greenfield-Central High School switched to a virtual format for Thursday and Friday, citing a spike in coronavirus cases.

Superintendent Harold Olin said the high school recorded 44 cases last week. Before that, the most cases G-C had ever recorded among all of its schools in a single week was 39, which was in the first semester of this school year.

The high school has had over 60 cases this week, Olin continued, adding one day had 36 alone.

“These are numbers we haven’t seen before — nowhere close to those numbers,” he said.

The virtual learning days, weekend and holiday will give high school students and staff five days out of the building before the anticipated return next Tuesday, Jan. 18.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we want to make sure we’re doing what we can to have a natural reset here,” Olin said.

He added the school corporation consulted on the decision with Hancock County health officer Dr. Gary Sharp and Hancock Regional Hospital leadership.

High school students are the most equipped to be successful in a virtual environment, Olin said. He also noted closing the high school for a couple days allowed the corporation to shift staff and substitute teachers to cover needs in other buildings.

Except for Eastern Hancock Elementary School, all of the public schools in the county have mask mandates. That allows them to avoid requiring quarantines in many situations for those in their buildings who are exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19. A close contact is someone who’s been within 6 feet of someone with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes within a 24-hour period.

Greenfield-Central High School’s 44 cases last week led to 39 close contacts.

Olin and other school leaders in the county say most of the tracing for close contacts stems from parts of school during which students have to go without masks — activities like lunch and physical education along with some music classes and extracurricular activities.

District-wide, Greenfield-Central recorded 117 cases last week, Olin said. For this week, the district had over 100 as of Thursday.

Olin said G-C plans to implement the latest guidance allowing for five-day isolation periods for those who test positive for COVID-19, but for now is sticking with its current protocols until after its ongoing surge subsides.

According to Mt. Vernon’s website Thursday afternoon, the school corporation had 87 cases across its five buildings, 33 of which were at the high school.

Maria Bond, director of community relations for Mt. Vernon, said the corporation is monitoring staff and student absences closely.

“While the COVID-19 spike is certainly stressing our staffing to support and teach students, we are extremely fortunate to have so many wonderful substitutes willing to fill our absences,” Bond told the Daily Reporter in an email. “This has been a key factor in remaining in person.”

Bond also noted that the number of students out due to illness has increased and that if a school’s absence percentage approaches 20%, school leaders will begin discussing closure.

As of Thursday afternoon, Mt. Comfort Elementary had the corporation’s highest percentage of students out due to illness, at 11.4%, or 13 students.

Eastern Hancock had seven student COVID-19 cases on Monday, six Tuesday and five on Wednesday, superintendent George Philhower said.

“Which is high, but in terms of overall population, it’s a fairly low percentage of 1,200 kids,” he added.

Philhower said close contacts have been ranging between about three to four per case. The mask requirement at the middle and high schools reduces contacts at those locations, he continued. While the elementary school doesn’t have a mask mandate, students there are kept in groups of four to five in an effort to minimize contact tracing and quarantining.

The numbers aren’t triggering any changes at Eastern Hancock.

“We’re always trying to be proactive and have every conversation before we need to have it,” Philhower said. “We understand that our job at school is far more than to provide a space for kids to be, but we also know that child care’s a big deal. Our health-care facilities often are staffed with parents who depend on us to be open so they can go to work, and we’re going to do our best to stay open.”

Philhower said two things would prompt the corporation to close its schools: the health department mandating it or not having enough staff to safely supervise students.

“So far we’re doing OK on staff,” he said. “Our best days are when everyone’s here, and we’re not there for sure, but we’re still able to keep everybody at school.”
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