Jul. 13—The Vigo County School Board on Monday unanimously approved a school re-opening plan that calls for access to in-person learning five days a week and no masking requirements except on school buses.
The district does recommend that those who are unvaccinated wear masks. It also encourages all those who are eligible to get vaccinated as "it will help limit disruption to our school year and keep our community safe," said Superintendent Rob Haworth.
For families who choose, a virtual school option will be available through Vigo Virtual Success Academy.
As far as masking, the district says it "will follow state and federal mandates. Currently, that means masks for unvaccinated individuals is recommended," according to the plan. Masks must be worn on school buses "due to a federal mandate."
The school board conducted a hearing on the plan, and two people commented.
Parent Sharon Jaafar, who has three children enrolled in Vigo County schools, appealed to the board to require universal mask-wearing for all unvaccinated members of the school community.
"Masking is proven to be effective in reducing the spread of this virus. And it is the best protection our children have right now," she said.
Her family kept their children home last year during the pandemic.
"I know the school board and our administration have read the reports, know what the CDC says, have done their research and know the current recommendations," Jaafar said. "Our leaders know that universal masking for unvaccinated children is the safest practice for in-person learning."
She said she understands that "decisions have become very political. That in our county, wearing a mask in order to keep others safe is unpopular. I recognize our leaders are stuck between mandating best practice and keeping the majority of parents happy. "
Mike Morris spoke in support of the proposed re-opening plan and "without restrictions." He said he was speaking personally and also on behalf of friends and relatives. Morris is a Vigo County commissioner.
According to the CDC's guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools, "Masks should be worn indoors by all individuals [age 2 and older] who are not fully vaccinated. Consistent and correct mask use by people who are not fully vaccinated is especially important indoors and in crowded settings, when physical distancing cannot be maintained.
The re-opening plan is available at vigoschools.org. A direct link is https://bit.ly/2TWopMY. The plan is subject to change based on changing data and changing federal and state mandates, officials say. The district will continue to work closely with its COVID-19 task force.
The district also points out in the plan it is "legally unable to require proof of vaccination among students and staff members."
In other matters, the board by a 7-0 vote approved a significantly revised attendance policy, said Tom Balitewicz, director of student services.
The policy more clearly defines excused, unexcused and exempt absences. It sets new limits on what constitutes excessive absences and outlines the school's response.
"We have forged a partnership with Vigo County courts to address habitual truants and cases that may be considered to be juvenile educational neglect, and we will recommend those parents and students be called in front of a judge to help reconcile the issue of poor school attendance," Balitewicz told the board.
Over the past year, Marie Callahan, who oversees VCSC school attendance, has worked with a group that included district personnel, representatives of the juvenile justice system and the state attendance officer in revising the policy
According to Callahan, the policy has a step by step process so parents know what notifications will be provided and what actions will be taken if students miss too many days of school.
"We do want to show we're very serious about attendance," she said.
Board member Amy Lore pointed out that it can be a felony if parents don't send their children to school.
Neglect of a dependent, a level 6 felony, occurs when a person who cares for a dependent knowingly or intentionally "deprives the dependent of education as required by law."
Callahan said the district works with the Children's Bureau in cases involving habitually absent students to help those students and families and educate them on why attendance so important.
The policy states that after nine absences [excused or unexcused] without proper documentation, absences will automatically be unexcused.
Students are permitted nine absences in a semester, the policy reads, and documentation with any absence is always encouraged. "After nine absences, any day missed without medical or legal documentation will be counted as unexcused, even with parent notification," the policy reads.
If further states, "To keep you informed of your child's absences, you will be sent a Skyward notification at 5, 7 and 9 days of absences by the school office. Refer to the Progressive Discipline Policy for our plan for unexcused absences. At any point in a student's excessive absence occurrence, the school may refer the guardian to the Children's Bureau. The student/guardian may be reported to the Department of Child Services for 10 unexcused absences."
Haworth said there is a strong correlation between poor school attendance and dropping out of school later on.
"How do we bring parents into this equation so that all engage in a student's education — the school, student, parents and law enforcement; they will all have an opportunity to help the student get across the finish line."
Flexible Virtual Learning Options Lead to District Turnaround in Terre Haute, Indiana
Vigo Virtual Success Academy, Vigo County School Corporation
Dr. Stacy Mason, Executive Director of Secondary Education
Robin Smith, Principal of Vigo Virtual Success Academy
Grades 9 to 12
14,642 district enrollment
54% free and reduced lunch
5% African American
Flash back to district reporting from just one year ago, and you’ll find that the Vigo County School Corporation (VCSC) in Terre Haute, Indiana, was hemorrhaging students—to the tune of 367 students choosing an outside virtual option during the 2018–19 school year alone. These students were exiting to take advantage of virtual learning options that the district wasn’t yet capable of offering. However, district and school leaders were seeing many of these students return, sometimes with no progress to show and no credits earned, just to wind up further behind and back in a classroom setting that wasn’t proving to be effective for them.
With the ultimate goal of helping all students succeed, no matter what their paths to graduation look like, school leaders set out to expand learning options. They decided to work with Edmentum’s EdOptions Academy virtual program to provide rigorous digital courseware paired with state-certified online teachers. Rounding out this partnership by installing its own school principal, mentors, guidance counselor, and social services, the district created Vigo Virtual Success Academy (VVSA) in August of 2019 to serve students in grades 9–12. As a new public option available to all high school students in the county, VVSA represented a critical step forward in earning back student enrollments, while still providing the accountability and resources available to students enrolled in the district’s traditional brick-and-mortar schools.
How They Did it:
Starting a new school and getting the word out to drive enrollment required intentional planning, partnership, and media outreach on the part of district and virtual academy administrators. In August 2019, all of the pieces came together at a town hall meeting where approximately 130 interested Vigo County community members attended in hope of finding a better way to support learning opportunities outside of traditional options.
“It was a very touching and poignant evening for us all,” recalled Robin Smith, VVSA principal. “We were all humbled by the fact that we’d created something where these folks are coming out to have their needs met. It's just grown very quickly, much to all of our amazement.”
As VVSA began taking enrollments, the question of which students will thrive in the virtual academy setting continually came to the forefront. Prior to enrolling any student in a virtual course, VVSA leaders open their doors to parents and students for more in-depth conversations to ensure the right fit. The school serves a variety of student needs, including homebound or hospital-bound students, those who have experienced bullying or mental health concerns, and students who need a more flexible academic schedule like fifth-year seniors.
“This has become kind of a safe haven for parents,” remarked Mrs. Smith. “So, we just sit and listen to them and then try to use what they’re giving us to build the best plan.” That plan could include an entirely virtual experience or a hybrid model leveraging brick-and-mortar services at the local alternative school, Booker T. Washington High School, in addition to online courses.
VVSA credits much of its success to the extra layer of accountability that students are provided. Two teachers at Booker T. Washington serve as virtual mentors or coaches making weekly phone calls or sending weekly emails to check in with students and provide help.
“One of the things we wanted to do from the beginning was to make sure that our virtual students had a place to go,” commented Dr. Stacy Mason, executive director of secondary education for VCSC. “If [students] need resources, need help, want to talk to a counselor, want to talk to a mentor teacher—whatever the situation is—we have this available to [them].”
Just six months into this endeavor, the numbers already indicate that VCSC’s online learning endeavor is a success. According to current enrollment reports, 117 students are now receiving virtual instruction at VVSA. Most of those students were from other virtual programs in need of additional support. But, success isn’t just about the number of students attending the new virtual school; it’s also about being able to provide consistent learning and ongoing support as students determine the right learning environment for them, whether that’s entirely virtual, brick-and-mortar, or some combination of the two.
“It’s been really fun to have the flexibility to truly develop a plan that we hope, and the student and parent hopes, will work for them,” noted Mrs. Smith. “[With our mentors and coaches] there’s a face and a name and a phone number so they can get to us. The Edmentum EdOptions teachers are phenomenal in what they do with the coursework, and we’re offering that mentoring/coaching piece here that just adds that extra layer of support.”
In June 2021, Teacher-Success Coach Lindsay Wilhoyte was selected as Edmentum's Inspiring Teacher of the Year. Check out a short interview with her to learn more about Vigo's implementation from an educator perspective.
The overwhelming interest in Vigo Virtual Success Academy has led to school and district leaders temporarily “putting the brakes on” further growth. Instead, they’ve elected to focus on providing high-quality education for the students they are currently serving while thoughtfully planning their next move. Parent phone calls and interest from neighboring districts have opened up conversations regarding extension into elementary or middle school grade levels or welcoming students from neighboring counties.
“While we know there's competition for enrollment dollars because that's what keeps us afloat, [the outside interest] also shows that there's compassion when it comes to educators doing what's best for their kids and providing them with the opportunity to have a diploma in hand,” said Dr. Mason.
As next steps continue to unfold, school leaders are proud of the outcomes they’re seeing so far and the lessons learned along the way.
“(A) you can’t be afraid to do it,” reported Dr. Mason. “(B) you need to do your research on the front end. We chose Edmentum [and EdOptions Academy] for a reason. That's because we felt from the get-go that the support that Edmentum could provide us was the best. And, we knew that when you're going into something like this that was very unknown for us, we knew we were going to need support. Edmentum really rose to the top.”
County school vigo virtual
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