Courierarea schools are extending their virtual learning breaks due to teacher absences and an inevitable spike in case counts following the Thanksgiving holiday.

The COVID-19 pandemic made for an unusual Thanksgiving week in Jefferson County. There was no annual Turkey Shootout between Madison and Southwestern on the eve, no Light Up Madison ceremony the evening after or dining involving extended families at Clifty Falls State Park due to surging rates of the virus in the community and worldwide.

The local case count steadily climbed the week leading up to Thanksgiving in Jefferson County, averaging 20 to 40 new positive tests daily, according to the Indiana State Department of Health dashboard. Jefferson also managed to surpass Scott County for total inflections 1,334 to 1,194 and now has 15 COVID-related deaths as of Sunday, the last of which came on Nov. 17.

Testing has also been at an all-time high in the county, with a moving average of 347 new tests as of Nov. 23 — a number that could likely grow in the coming holiday season. A record 702 residents of the county were tested on Nov. 16.

Mayor Bob Courtney gave the order to switch on the Broadway Fountain’s Christmas lights Friday night on a solo Facebook Live broadcast, following the earlier cancellation of Light Up Madison to show off the city’s investment in new decorations for the downtown area. However, the city’s Fourth Friday and Small Business Saturday events over the weekend were held.

Earlier in the week, the mayor took to Facebook Live while in quarantine for testing positive to encourage citizens to social distance, wear face coverings and practice good sanitation to get Jefferson County “back to blue” on the ISDH map.

“This year has been different, but one of the things that is still the same is that we live in a wonderful community and that the spirit of Christmas is alive and well,” Courtney said during the broadcast Friday before the city switched on lights running along the fountain park on Broadway from Main to Third streets.

The uptick in cases is more directly affecting area schools, a few of whom have moved to virtual learning until December due to an irreplaceable number of staff in quarantine.

Madison Consolidated High School and Junior High students will remain in virtual learning until at least Dec. 7, Madison Consolidated Schools announced Sunday morning. Students at both schools have been learning virtually since the second week of November.

Junior high students at Madison were supposed to return Dec. 1, but the district pushed that date back again on Sunday. Secondary extracurriculars are still ongoing at all schools.

Students at the E.O. Muncie alternative Jr./Sr. high school returned to in-person classes Monday after taking a virtual learning break, as did Anderson and Lydia Middleton elementaries following staff shortages and a move to online learning the week of Nov. 16.

Madison still had eight teachers out at the high school and six to seven staffers out at the junior high due to testing positive or being in close contact with someone who tested positive, Superintendent Jeff Studebaker said on Monday. The hope is that by Dec. 7, all positive cases will be exiting their quarantine periods, but that doesn’t account for the likely post-Thanksgiving spike, he said.

The district sent out guidance to families and students over the break, encouraging them to keep gatherings small, wear masks, avoid hot spot areas and wash their hands often. Virtual classes have been running mostly smooth since making the transition, the superintendent said.

“Virtual has been OK,” Studebaker said. “We’ve been running into the same issues we’ve had before in the spring, we have some families that have slow internet or no internet access, so we’ve parked some buses around the district that have Wi-Fi access, but that’s still not the perfect solution for those families — we understand that.”

Another hurdle has been trying to speed up a virtual learning program for elementary students, which has been running slow, Studebaker said. The daily attendance rate for online classes is also “a little off from where we’d like it to be, but it’s better than it was in the spring,” he said.

The Southwestern Jefferson County School Corporation is taking similar steps, extending middle and high school students’ online learning through Dec. 4 while elementary students returned to class Monday following a three-week virtual learning period.

Superintendent Jeff Bates said the district had 13 teachers out between the high school and junior high as of Monday. About four of them were expected to exit their quarantine periods on Tuesday, and hopefully most can return to work by Monday, Dec. 7, he said.

Like most public schools, Southwestern had had difficulties finding enough substitute teachers to keep up with the amount of teachers on quarantine. Efforts to do more with less, like combining classrooms, would defeat the purpose of the district’s own COVID-19 guidelines, Bates pointed out.

“It’s going to be driven by our staff,” Bates said. “If we can get the teachers and the staff here, we will have school unless the health department shuts us down student-wise.”

Prince of Peace Catholic Schools students, meanwhile, returned from a virtual learning break on Nov. 17 and have gone to class every school day since.

The situation will look far different this holiday season in the state of Kentucky, which on Nov. 19 announced orders for all schools in “red counties” designated by the Kentucky Department for Public Health to go virtual from Nov. 23 until Jan. 4, 2021. Trimble County has since gotten back into a groove similar to August, when it held classes over Google Classroom, delivered meals and ran hot spots out to students without stable internet access.

The district posted a long “thank you” message to Facebook last Tuesday to show appreciation for teachers, families, staff, students and the greater community for their diligence during a difficult time.

“Thank you for learning more about Google Classroom than you ever wanted to,” the district said to parents. “Thank you for coming home from your work day to spend your afternoons and evenings helping to make sure assignments have been completed and submitted. Thank you for reaching far beyond your comfort zone to support your children and the school district.”

As of Monday afternoon, the North Central District Health Department had last announced five new cases of COVID-19 in Trimble County, including one elderly resident and two infants in self-isolation at home. The county at the time had 25 active cases, one death, and 173 total cases since the onset of the pandemic.