Jul. 9—ANDERSON — After a year of improvising online and hybrid lesson plans, local school officials are planning for the upcoming fall semester to be relatively normal for students and teachers alike.
With COVID-19 vaccines becoming more widely available and vaccination rates increasing, the focus will be on ensuring adequate testing is available, as well as fine-tuning a referral system for those who may choose to get vaccinated after the school year begins.
"So as long as we can continue to help schools and support them in those two particular areas, those are really the key components right now of continuing to keep our kiddos safe," said Stephenie Grimes-Mellinger, administrator with the Madison County Health Department.
Although Grimes-Mellinger said she expects a small increase in infections once students return to school, most area superintendents are planning for masks to be optional in the buildings.
"We want to get as close to the old normal as we can," said Daleville Schools Superintendent Greg Roach. "We still have some things that we'll have to have in place."
As of Thursday, recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention included no indoor mask requirements for those who have been fully vaccinated. Social distancing guidance has been relaxed, which could also help teachers planning classroom layouts during the next month.
"We're not going to require masks for students or teachers," said Bobby Fields, superintendent at Frankton-Lapel Community Schools. "We are going to try to maintain the social distancing, and hopefully that will cut down on any transmission. When the guidance went from six feet to three feet, that helped a bunch."
Grimes-Mellinger has been meeting regularly with all superintendents in the county to provide updates and share vaccine and testing information. She said the group has been "on the same page" when it comes to discussing coronavirus-related restrictions that might be implemented.
"They still stand behind the CDC saying if you've been fully vaccinated, you don't need to wear a mask indoors," Grimes-Mellinger said. "So masks are no longer mandatory except for on school buses — that's a federal policy right now. All mass transit has to have masks, and school buses are included in that."
Superintendents are also in agreement on using the county's color coding system to guide health and safety protocols from week to week.
"Every week we get updated — we're blue again this week — they will look at implementing masks when and if we become yellow or orange," Grimes-Mellinger said. "As long as community spread is low, which is what blue indicates, then we will continue to go nonmasking if you've been vaccinated."
Many students have gone through a year of unpredictability, with some shifting between e-learning and in-person instruction more than once during the 2020-21 school year. Leaders say it remains to be seen how those changes have affected those students' academic development.
"We'll be able to see some different levels of students in comparison to where their peers are," Roach said. "We'll have some good information, I think, to see where our students are and judge where we need to go from there. We'll want to help them make gains as quickly as possible."
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