PANDEMIC PRESSURE: COVID-19 decisions weigh on school officials

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HANCOCK COUNTY — Reports have been popping up across the country about threats and acts of violence against school officials and disruptions at school board meetings in response to measures taken amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

At least one school board in Indiana moved a meeting last month to an online platform after parents’ disruptive behavior at the board’s previous meeting.

Attendees of school board meetings in Hancock County haven’t gone far beyond impassioned testimony during allotted times for public comments when it comes to pandemic protocols, but the pressure is not lost on those making decisions.

Mask requirements, quarantine periods and keeping a close watch on Indiana Department of Health guidance are things many school board members never bargained for when they ran for office.

Kellie Freeman is in her seventh year on Mt. Vernon’s school board.

“We have great families at MV, and they care what happens with their children,” the board president told the Daily Reporter in an email. “As a board, we always want to hear from people who live in the district. However, I do not recall a time or topic that has put this much pressure not only on the school board, but the students, teachers, and administration as well. Our team and community truly pulled together to do what was best for students.”

Kathy Dowling, vice president of Greenfield-Central’s school board, shared a similar sentiment in an email.

“This has been one of my most challenging of my nine years on the school board,” she said. “However, we have had many challenges. They just haven’t affected as many people directly. I feel fortunate to live in a community where I trust people to do what is right and who I feel trust me to do the same.”

A competent team weighs in on those decisions, Dowling added.

“We have protocols that must be followed set by the state and local boards of health,” she said. “Parents and grandparents and families have been stressed by missing work due to students having COVID and/or being quarantined. Everyone has strong opinions regarding masks, vaccines and rules regarding COVID. Fortunately, we live in a community where most are level-headed and can compromise about these situations and not become hostile.”

Brian McKinney, president of Southern Hancock’s school board, said recent disruptions at school board meetings in the state have reinforced the need to prioritize safety and prompted increased security at meetings he leads.

“We are always thinking about school safety for all people who enter our school corporation,” McKinney said in an email. “With the recent actions at our neighboring school board meetings, it has become even more of a priority to keep everyone safe during our meetings and during the school day.”

School superintendents have been involved in decisions throughout the pandemic as well.

“We’re in the education business, and we’re used to change, so we certainly understand that, but these challenges have been quite unique, and maybe even unexpected,” said Jack Parker, Mt. Vernon superintendent.

School board members and other school personnel break down those problems collaboratively, he continued, adding they speak to parents as much as possible through listening tours and other avenues.

“What we’re really trying to do in all of this is really focus on the bottom line, and the bottom line is what’s best for kids,” Parker said. “So when you use that guiding principle, it provides a great deal of comfort in challenging times.”

George Philhower, superintendent of Eastern Hancock, agreed.

“I think what makes it difficult is that, as an educator, I feel like I’m constantly being asked to make decisions about things that I’m not qualified to do with this topic,” he said. “I’m not a medical expert. And I don’t know what causes COVID to spread; my sources for learning that are the same as everybody else in the public. I don’t have any expertise beyond that. So the best decision that we can make at schools are the ones that keep kids in school, because we do know how to make decisions once kids are in school.”

Harold Olin, Greenfield-Central superintendent, echoed Dowling’s credit to their school district.

“We have a wonderful community,” he said. “Most people understand it’s a no-win situation. In fact, most people will tell me that in their emails. They have a strong opinion about it, but understand it’s a no-win situation for those making those decisions.”

Communication is key, said Lisa Lantrip, Southern Hancock superintendent.

“We have done our best during the pandemic to keep our families informed and be transparent about why our team has made the decisions we have made,” she said in an email. “We have been honest and forthcoming about decisions we know may not be popular. I believe our communication has helped our parents understand our approach and goals to keep school open. Our parents know they have avenues to communicate with the board and administration beyond our monthly board meetings.”

None of the officials said they’ve ever felt in danger at school board meetings when it comes to reactions to pandemic precautions.

“I can say without any hesitation I have never felt unsafe at a school board meeting,” Olin said. “I know people are passionate about many of these topics, but I’ve never felt unsafe.”

When he hears about the more dangerous situations occurring in other communities, it makes him grateful for his.

“It is eye-opening to think that these things are happening in some very good communities,” he added. “It’s a reminder that it only takes one or two individuals to really change that environment.”

Dowling said those instances leave her dismayed.

“It makes me sad that people have gone over the edge with their anger,” she said. “Being that angry and violent hasn’t resolved any situations and has only made things worse. People have to put things in perspective and keep calm and work together.”

Incidents elsewhere haven’t prompted a security boost at G-C meetings; Olin said the corporation always tries to have a school resource officer present, a practice that preceded his eight years as superintendent.

The same is true for meetings at Mt. Vernon, where officials said Fortville police officers have had a presence off and on for several years.

“I’ve not had one safety concern at a school board meeting,” Parker said. “I’ve been an administrator for 25 years, and people can be emotional when it comes to their children, but by and large they’re really reasonable and we have good conversations.”

Freeman, who presides over Mt. Vernon’s meetings, agreed.

“The board has a genuine desire to listen to those who show up to speak. I would like to think the relationships we have with the people in our district have helped us keep our meetings mutually respectful; we all care about the students and staff at MVCSC (Mt. Vernon Community School Corporation).”

Philhower feels the same about Eastern Hancock.

“All of our patrons that come to listen to the school board are respectful and following the guidelines that we have for public comment and all those types of things,” he said.

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