INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Modified school days, more outdoor class time, mask-wearing and health screenings for students and staff are among steps Indiana schools should consider before reopening from coronavirus closures under recommendations released Friday by the state Department of Education.
All schools across the state closed in mid-March and shifted largely to online coursework. The guidelines are not mandatory, however, and the state is leaving the ultimate decision on resuming classes, sports and other activities to local schools.
Specific social distancing recommendations outlined in the report include scheduling groups of students to attend in-person school on alternate days or half days to minimize the number of students in school buildings. The education department also suggests keeping the same students and staff members together as much as possible and increasing space between student desks. A three-phase plan for the return of extracurricular activities would allow them to resume by Aug. 15.
Anyone who tests positive or exhibits one or more symptoms of the virus should not be allowed to enter the school, according to the guidelines. Because temperature screening “can present challenges” and “will not eliminate the risk” of the disease spreading on buses or inside school buildings, self-screening at home is the at-minimum recommendation.
And while mask-wearing is recommended by the education department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, school districts can decide whether to make that a requirement.
“Providing students with a quality education is critical and therefore it is crucial we offer considerations focused on getting students back in the classroom in a safe manner,” state schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in a statement. McCormick is expected to discuss the guidelines further during an online meeting with school leaders on Tuesday.
The new guidance comes sooner than originally planned. Gov. Eric Holcomb, who is “convinced” that the state’s schools will be able to reopen safely, previously said he would issue guidance to schools in July. Educators and school administrators, however, pushed for earlier directions: Most districts begin school by early August, meaning they would have had little time to prepare.
During a Friday news conference, Holcomb reemphasized that the recommendations are not mandated policies and that there are no enforcement measures in place to ensure schools comply. Rather, the governor said, these “guardrails” are intended to help local administrators determine what's needed for their schools to open safely.
“We believe where we are right now, schools can and should open for instruction,” Holcomb said. “We wouldn’t have made that decision or endorsed that proposal if we thought otherwise.”
Reopening schools is part of the final phase in Holcomb’s five-stage plan to lift coronavirus restrictions and reopen Indiana. But it remains unclear whether students, families and teachers will feel comfortable returning to school during the pandemic.
Indiana State Teachers Association President Keith Gambill, responding to the new guidelines, said in a press release that teachers and school staff “must be part of this planning” to reopen. Parents, he added, need reassurance that schools “will be a safe place.”
“There’s still a very dangerous virus going around, and as far as we know, this will still be going on in a few months when school starts back up,” said Maria DeSanto, whose three children attend schools in Fort Wayne. “It feels too soon ... I don’t want to rush the process for my kids or their teachers and put them, and myself and others, in more danger.”
As of Friday, Indiana had more than 36,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and at least 2,000 related deaths, according to the State Department of Health.
Those are numbers Carmel father Davis LaFollette, who has a 5-year-old son, said he’s been following every day. Out of concern over the continued spread of the virus, LaFollette said he’s now debating whether to send his child to school at all this fall.
He “doesn’t have to go, so I don’t think I’m going to make him” LaFollette said, referring to laws in Indiana that do not require students to attend kindergarten. “I want to let this thing play out at least through the end of year. Then we can reconsider and feel more comfortable with the added safety precautions.”
Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.