Will this be a more normal school year? Here's how schools are handling COVID this fall.

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The big question two years ago was whether students could go back to in-person learning safely. Last year, it was the masks.

As school begins again this year, educators say they're optimistic things are getting back to the way they use to be. Though some mitigation measures remain, school leaders say they're planning now for a year that looks a lot more like things did before the coronavirus pandemic.

"We're kind of taking a backseat, letting the medical professionals take the lead on the medical side and getting back into our lanes of education," said Kory LaBonne, director of human resources and school safety for Mishawaka schools, which had its first day on Wednesday.

Schools back at full capacity

Classrooms this year are returning to full capacity, events and field trips are back, and visitor restrictions will go away in most places. Educators say they're now relying on new guidance from health officials with a hope that vaccinations and a greater understanding of how the virus spreads can help keep kids in class.

At least one local health official, however, is warning that as schools begin to treat COVID-19 more like the flu, St. Joseph County could be in for a rough fall.

"Over the last couple of years, we've seen less flu in schools, mostly because people were masking and taking appropriate precautions," said Mark Fox, deputy health officer for St. Joseph County. "Yet people are not going to expend that same energy this year. I think there will just be a lot of people not feeling great and missing time from school or work, and there will be some longer-term consequences, unfortunately."

Fox also points to state and federal leaders changing the standards for what level of COVID is acceptable, the decreasing amount of detailed health data being shared, and the fact that more positive tests are from at-home tests that don't show up in community dashboard numbers.

Why a return?

Over the last year, health officials' guidance has increasingly shifted away from closures and required quarantines to maximize the time spent in person that educators say is vital to students' academic recovery.

Last February, the Indiana State Department of Health lifted requirements for school contact tracing and quarantine amid declines in reported COVID-19 cases. St. Joseph County districts, around the same time, dropped their mask requirements and discontinued contact tracing as positive cases became more difficult to track with a growing availability of at-home test kits.

School leaders across the county say they're planning for a similar approach this fall.

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Officials from South Bend, Mishawaka and Penn-Harris-Madison say masks this year will be encouraged among those who want to wear them, but not required. Mandates last year made for a contentious back-to-school season.

The increasingly more flexible guidance has come as welcome relief to some schools that were stretched in the spring to fill vital positions like classroom substitutes and bus drivers.

In a school nurse webinar earlier this month, state health officials emphasized their goal to support safe, in-person learning environments in recognition that schools provide critical services such as free meals for low income families and equitable educational opportunities.

The CDC also relaxed guidance last week for close contact quarantines, saying those who come near a positive case, regardless of vaccination status, no longer need to quarantine.

"We're in a stronger place today as a nation, with more tools — like vaccination, boosters and treatments — to protect ourselves, and our communities, from severe illness from COVID-19," CDC Branch Chief Dr. Greta Massetti said in an agency news release. "This guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives."

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Failing grades more than doubled in some South Bend-area schools and chronic absenteeism "skyrocketed" in the year directly following the spring of 2020. Recent state test scores show slight rebounds among Hoosier students who spent much of last year back in person. Learning gaps still exist, though, and state education officials have said a full recovery could take anywhere from three to five years.

Having students physically present for school is an important piece of getting students back on track, educators say, especially in districts like South Bend where engagement in a remote learning environment proved challenging.

"Making sure kids have regular attendance is a number one priority of ours this year," South Bend Assistant Superintendent Brandon White said. "Regular attendance in school is very important to their overall success."

Which changes will stay?

For most districts, though, things won't be entirely back to normal. In South Bend, a district coronavirus committee will still meet biweekly. The corporation has replaced many of its water fountains with bottle-filling stations and has increased the number of hand sanitizer pumps available. White said school leaders will also continue to emphasize frequent hand-washing throughout the day and on trips.

All districts are asking familiestopractice daily health screenings. Officials say students should not come to school if they're running a fever of 100 degrees or higher, and should stay home until they've been fever-free for at least 24 hours. If showing any coronavirus symptoms, district leaders encourage families to pursue an at-home test and seek out guidance from a medical professional.

Although close contacts may no longer be required to quarantine, the CDC is recommending that anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 isolate for at least five days and wear a high-quality mask for at least 10 days.

Because state health officials no longer require schools to contact trace, the onus will be on families to reach out to notify others of possible close contact to a positive case. Families in most districts can choose to share their students' COVID-status with schools when reporting absences.

In Mishawaka for example, families can use a new online absence reporting tool to share that their student has tested positive. LaBonne said nurses will still keep a limited supply of COVID-19 tests with them at school.

"Right now, our focus, obviously, is on recovery and how do we bounce back from this from an academic and social-emotional and behavioral aspect of things?" LaBonne said. "We're certainly keeping our eyes set on moving forward in the future — still being mindful and responsible, but not wanting to move backwards."

What are health experts watching?

Many say they'll continue to look to health professionals for guidance as the year progresses and assess whether any adjustments, like a return to more socially distanced classrooms, are needed.

"We'll monitor everything closely," P-H-M Superintendent Jerry Thacker said. "With the desks, we have the opportunity to move further away from each other and to make sure we have adequate space. … We have the ability to shift quickly."

Fox, the county's deputy health officer, however, says he's concerned by increasingly relaxed guidance from state and federal health officials that he believes were "not always necessarily informed by the science."

And the goal-posts for following how COVID-19 spreads seem to have moved this year, making it difficult for public health officials and parents alike to assess how prevalent coronavirus is in the community.

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As home kits become more widely available, state and local coronavirus dashboards show results only from tests given at a doctor's office, pharmacy or hospital. The state has since discontinued its once-popular school dashboard and instead provides data more generally on youth positivity rates. Multiple indicators tracing levels of community spread now align with a color-coded community map produced by the CDC.

St. Joseph County has reported about 180 cases per 100,000 people over the last week, putting the county in the CDC's Medium level for community spread. That's up from about 100 cases per 100,000 this time last year, Fox said, and is likely an undercount of three to five times the actual number of cases when considering how many people likely are testing at home.

Because of the new limitations in daily case rate data, the deputy health director said, he'll use that metric along with others, such as general school absence data and hospitalizations rates, to better understand community spread.

By state law, schools must still report student absences of 20% or more to state and local health officials. And hospitalizations in the county, Fox said, are currently "middling" with few cases ending up in the intensive care unit. Although hospitalization trends appear encouraging, Fox said, he's still concerned by the low number of school-aged children vaccinated across the county.

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Just shy of 25% of children ages 5 to 11 have been fully vaccinated and less than half of kids ages 12-15 have been fully immunized, according to county data. Teens, who have been eligible for the vaccine longer, have a slightly higher vaccination rate at 59.1%.

Schools can play an important role, Fox said, in making masks available during events and encouraging families to keep up with routine immunizations beyond COVID-19.

Fox concedes that required mitigation strategies, such as last fall's mask mandates, may not be politically feasible, but, he said, schools can work to create "mask-friendly" environments where those who decide to wear face coverings feel welcomed and not stigmatized for their choice.

"It is a balance," Fox said, "between 'what are the risks and benefits that we hope to achieve or avoid?' and 'how much are we willing to take on to accomplish that?'"

Email South Bend Tribune education reporter Carley Lanich at clanich@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter: @carleylanich.

This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: How schools are handling COVID-19 precautions in 2022-23