Safety first: The Noblesville community comes to terms with challenges in resuming in person schooling during a pandemic


Photo by Andrew Reynolds

Middle school teacher Jason Smith set up his room differently this year. Smith teaches 8th Grade Science on NWMS Team Empire.

COVID-19 — a towering wave destroying everything in its way — has forced Noblesville Schools to accommodate a new and uncertain lifestyle in which many are wondering about what is to come. What is school faculty and staff doing to keep my child safe? Why is the school schedule constantly changing? When will school return to its previous state? These vague questions are ones that Noblesville administrators have admittedly struggled to answer, in the face of ever so changing information, in order to best keep students.

Too Close To Home

Many Noblesville High School students have had concerns for the functionality of this new experience. Junior Nolan Weaver has concerns about the health of NHS students this year based on their responses to the new safety precautions.

“I believe that most students are taking this virus very seriously, but we still have some issues,” Weaver said. “I have seen on numerous occasions people in the hallway not wearing their mask or not covering their noses.”

Students vary in their following of COVID safety measures. Although Weaver believes most students are following the rules, he wishes some students were more committed to wearing their masks properly.

“I don’t want to wear one either, but right now we must make sure that everyone is wearing their mask properly and respecting other people’s personal space,” Weaver said.

Weaver is not alone in his concern for some people’s lack of compliance towards mask guidelines. This issue has proven to be a rather wide-spread worry amongst the student body.

Nate Cook, the junior class president, is also troubled at times by this issue. Despite this, he, as well as students, parents, and staff, trust school administrators to make the best decisions to keep everyone safe.

“I know they care about making sure that we stay safe,” Cook said. “I think that with everything going on, as far as the challenges [COVID has presented], they’ve done well.”

Principals have been tasked with creating plans for their schools based on recommendations from the Hamilton County Health Department (HCHD) and working with parents and staff to protect the community while also trying to maximize educational opportunities. Dr. Craig McCaffrey, who is serving his first year as the full-time principal at NHS, is one of those principals charged with creating an efficient and safe plan in a short amount of time.

“The state didn’t really come out with any recommendations until after July 4th, which is why things were really rough to put together. We used a lot of recommendations from the state, our local health department, and those items were combined to what we thought would work for our school best,” McCaffrey said.

Diligence in proper mask wearing and the following of CDC recommended social distancing protocols are both frequently cited challenges in holding classes, and other large gatherings, during a pandemic, especially for an airborn disease. For McCaffrey, it has the school’s biggest hurdle.

“The worst [we] have to deal with every once in a while is telling someone to pull their mask over their nose, and maybe I get three or four of those a day,” McCaffrey said.

Despite the occasional forgetfulness in proper mask wearing, McCaffrey is pleased that students and staff have handled the new guidelines well and that things as a whole are going smoothly.          

“Students have been really really good about following precautions, the best I’ve ever seen in my career,” McCaffrey said. “The biggest thing was educating everyone, but once that was in place, everybody has been really awesome.”

Although McCaffrey believes that students have responded in an appropriate manner, he admits there is still uncertainity as to what path the school will take moving forward.                                       

“It’s kind of like that double-edged sword of ‘What do you do? Do we keep doing what we’re doing or can we do something different?’”

Looking Through Other Lenses

Changes caused by COVID-19 haven’t only impacted Noblesville High School. Ryan Haughey, in his first year as principal at Noblesville West Middle School, had to make a lot of adjustments in order to accommodate the middle school, including plexiglass separating desks, assigned lunch tables by team, and expanded lunch lines.

Haughey said that his communication with other administrators in the district has been a key component in creating the most efficient regulatory measures and precautions possible.

“We talk about issues at all three schools. We try to coordinate what things may look like, because if we’re having a problem here at West, chances are East and the high school are seeing some similar things,” Haughey said. “That’s been kind of a saving grace as we’ve gone through this, the fact that [we have] multiple people talking about issues in Noblesville and collaborating together to make the best decisions that we can, not just for the kids that go to West, go to East, go to the high school, but for all 11,000 kids that go to Noblesville schools.”

For elementary schools in the district, the decision was made to have all students in the building at all times. Jack Lawrence, long-time principal at Hinkle Creek Elementary, says that decision was made based on the need for students to work collaboratively and achieve the best learning experience possible.

“All students learn best with face-to-face instruction and this is especially true at the elementary level, where students are not as able to be independent with online learning as much as middle school and high school students can be,” Lawrence said. “Because elementary students are cohorted with one class throughout the day [including at lunch and recess], students and teachers are exposed to a much smaller group of people than middle and high school students who must rotate throughout many classes, teachers, hallways and activities. These smaller cohort groups made it possible to safely return elementary students every day. Also, our data is showing that positive cases of COVID are less common among elementary students than middle and high school students.”

When talking about how students, staff, and parents have handled and adjusted to these new challenges, Lawrence has nothing but praise.

“Our Hinkle Creek families and staff members have been wonderful in understanding and implementing our safety precautions. I have not had any problems enforcing the safety precautions,” Lawrence said. “ It has been a wonderful start to the school year and we look forward to seeing our students each and every day.”

Finding Comfort In The Unknown

For many across the country, the outlook for education during such an unprecedented pandemic differs. In Noblesville, students and administrators are hopeful, but they are still weary and cautious of what could lie ahead. For Haughey, his outlook remains optimistic, even though he admits it will be difficult to know what’s to come.

“The one thing that has really humbled me about this is being okay with the unknown. We’ve got plans depending on how things go, but predicting what the coming weeks, the coming months will look like is pretty daunting and it’s tough to do,” Haughey said. “We’re going to keep following science [and] listening to our medical professionals, so far doing that has really steered us in a really positive direction.”

Noblesville administrators are basing potential future changes and developments on the recommendations of health professionals, specifically the HCHD. HCHD Education Specialist, James Ginder, encourages Noblesville Schools to continue following basic protocols.

“The Hamilton County Health Department recommendation at this time is still social distancing, wearing face coverings, staying home when you are sick and have your social bubble small,” Ginder said.

Haughey expresses that if those safety precautions aren’t enough, administrators have discussed alternatives and are prepared to follow through with those backup plans if needed.

“We’ve talked about different contingency plans, so we’re ready to pivot should we need to pivot. Not knowing exactly what that looks like makes it difficult, because we don’t know what it looks like, or even what it could look like,” Haughey said. “We’ve had conversations if we need to pivot or do something different, then hopefully, we’d be able to do something that still is going to be good for kids and [students will] have the best learning opportunities possible.”