South Bend Tribune. Aug. 23, 2020.

Lessons to learn from Notre Dame’s reopening

The past week has provided a cautionary tale — and confirmed the worst fears of many local residents — about the risks of welcoming college students back to campus in the midst of a pandemic.

The University of Notre Dame’s plan for in-person classes — based on “the best medical advice and scientific information available,” according to university President the Rev. John Jenkins — began to fall apart within a week of the start of the fall semester.

Last week, as the number of COVID-19 cases spiked, Jenkins announced that for the next two weeks, students will meet online only, off-campus students are not to come on campus, and gatherings are limited to no more than 100 people. The university hopes that these measures will contain the virus so that in-person instruction can resume — and they can avoid sending everyone back home.

To its credit, Notre Dame has been transparent about case numbers, has apologized for its mistakes and has resolved to try to fix them. But the university’s initial response to the spike in cases reveals something less than the “assiduously” planned reopening outlined by Jenkins in a May New York Times op-ed.

That plan seems to have been built on the assumption that students would follow protocols, including social distancing and wearing masks. And that they wouldn’t gather in large groups and have parties. The trouble with such assumptions came early, even before classes began, with off-campus parties.

It’s worth noting that many students are following protocols. But as health officials have emphasized for months, all it takes is a small number of people to spread the highly contagious virus.

Once the virus began spreading on campus, the university was caught unprepared: Some students reported that calls to the COVID hotline went unanswered, some complained about waiting days to get tested on campus and others told stories about preparation at the quarantine areas set up by the university. Some professors were outraged that they weren’t notified that students in their classes had tested positive.

For all the planning the university says it did, the results of the past week reveal a lack of preparation. The question should have been when, not if, an uptick in cases occurred. And with months to prepare for reopening, the plans for quarantine centers and communications with students and faculty should have been solid.

The challenge Notre Dame faces as it considers whether to pull the plug on in-person classes is huge. And they’re not alone. Michigan State University is shifting to a fully remote model for its fall semester even before many students have returned to campus, asking undergraduate students planning to live on campus to stay home. Last week, Purdue University suspended a cooperative house and 36 students for attending a party that didn’t follow guidelines for social distancing and masks. And Indiana University announced it is working to identify and suspend students who participated in a party after a video of the gathering was posted on Twitter.

In his Times op-ed, Jenkins says the undertaking is “very much worth the remaining risk.” But with students circulating throughout the community at large, it’s not just the safety of the campus community that’s a concern. Students who wander off campus and visit local establishments are potentially putting local residents at risk. We all have a stake in what students are doing.

All of Notre Dame’s missteps should serve as a warning sign for other universities that are reopening. The lesson: Do not make the same assumptions, and be prepared to do the right thing — not just in handling cases, but also ending in-person instruction if necessary.


(Terre Haute) Tribune-Star. Aug. 21, 2020.

Bleak times will give way to local progress

Signs of hope and progress are precious right now. The surging coronavirus pandemic’s impact has frozen some sectors of the U.S. economy. It has withered others.

Hoosiers and Americans nationwide have lost jobs. A total of 1.1 million people in the U.S. have filed unemployment claims, as of Aug. 15, according to the federal Labor Department. Of those, 11,750 Indiana residents made their initial filings for jobless benefits just last week.

Construction workers are busy in pockets of Terre Haute, though. That is a blessing.

The end result of their work will be structures that will serve community needs and stir economic activity for decades to come. That is a reason for optimism, even as Vigo County and the state confront the sobering public-health realities of the coronavirus.

Construction of the new Vigo County jail is underway on Terre Haute’s south side. Years of public debate and disagreement on its scope and location extended the wait, but were necessary and ensured residents’ voices were heard. Rainy weather earlier this year also stalled building efforts for nearly two months.

Still, progress on the 500-bed, $56.1-million jail is happening. Water services and excavation are complete, and concrete foundations are more than halfway done. Walls are going up, and plumbing and electrical installations are progressing. County officials expect the jail to be under roof by December. The entire facility is scheduled for completion by March 2022.

Likewise, site preparation, and water and electrical service installations have begun downtown on Terre Haute’s new convention center and parking garage. That project, too, has involved contentious moments, but snags are being resolved and work is ongoing.

Uncertainty over parking availability around the convention center cleared this week. The county’s Capital Improvement Board, overseer of the convention center project, ironed out a land-use deal that enable the installation of a surface parking lot at the current site of the Vigo County School Corp. administration building at Seventh and Wabash. The CIB bought the property from the VCSC for $3 million last spring. The corporation will remain at that location until September 2021, and then move its school administration hub elsewhere.

On Wednesday, the CIB approved a 20-year renewable lease of the VCSC lot with Crossroads Parking Partners, headed by Terre Haute businessman Greg Gibson and hotelier Tim Dora. The lot will be used for parking by the nearby Hilton Garden Inn.

The CIB also agreed on an agency to manage the convention center — Spectra Venue. The deal calls for the CIB to pay Spectra $110,000 yearly, plus 3% of gross food and beverage sales at the convention center. Additional incentives for Spectra to bring in conventions were agreed upon, too. The CIB has yet to approve a final contract for the Larry Bird Museum, to be housed inside the convention center, but the bureau did hire a museum design firm last month.

Work on the foundation of the center and parking garage is scheduled to start Sept. 21. The garage should be completed by August 2021, and the center should be done by March 2022. A new $29.5-million Marriott Courtyard hotel also is expected to be built, adding 50 new jobs and a $1.225-million annual payroll.

The $32.5-million convention center is expected to attract a steady flow of new visitors to downtown Terre Haute. Ideally, new businesses will move in to service those convention visitors, and existing businesses will grow and prosper from the new foot traffic. Convention center backers also expect the new Hard Rock “Rocksino” casino — scheduled to open in fall of 2021 on the city’s east side — to entice organizations around the state and Midwest to bring their conventions to the downtown center. A renovated Hulman Center, due to reopen in November, will also bolster the downtown significantly.

COVID-19 has understandably forced delays and reconfiguration of civic projects around the country. The highly infectious disease, with no known cure, has altered plans for Vigo County’s projects, too. Still, continual progress on the jail and convention center serve as reminders that a time after this crisis will come, eventually, and this community will be ready to grow again.


The (Anderson) Herald Bulletin. Aug. 19, 2020.

Holcomb should assure full school funding

It would seem to be a simple question with only one right answer.

Will the State of Indiana fully fund all public K-12 education this school year, regardless of whether schools are using in-person instruction, virtual learning or a hybrid of the two during the pandemic?

Gov. Eric Holcomb seemed to have the right answer in June when he and the State Legislature’s budget writers said they would support full funding for all public schools regardless.

But then two weeks ago, state Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray sent school districts a notification that those not offering in-person classes would likely receive only 85% of their basic per-pupil funding.

After educators howled, Holcomb announced last week that he had a solution: delay the fall count of student enrollment, which dictates district funding based on how many students are attending class in-person and how many are learning virtually, until at least December.

The state board of education will conduct a special meeting this week to set a new student count day.

According to Indiana law, schools receive only 85% of per-pupil funding for students taking less than half of their instruction in-person. That amounts to a reduction of about $850 for each “virtual student.”

If Holcomb is hoping that all schools are in-person by the time January arrives, he’s likely to be disappointed. Projections suggest the coronavirus will continue to be a persistent danger for months.

More likely, the governor is looking ahead to January for another reason. Changing or creating an exception to the state law would take an act of the Legislature, and the next session of the General Assembly is scheduled to convene in January.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick has called for a special session of the General Assembly to address school funding more quickly. But the logistics of 150 state legislators meeting anytime soon to conduct business as COVID-19 cases spike in Indiana are problematic. School administrators know all too well the complexity of such logistics.

Republicans hold a supermajority at the statehouse, so the power to revise the law and assure 100% funding for schools rests in their hands. Holcomb is a Republican, too. He’s positioned to build a consensus among the party’s lawmakers to support full funding for the state’s public schools.

As long as the threat of reduced funding lingers, some schools will be forced to choose between keeping students and staff safe and losing a large slice of resources, or sending them back into the classroom despite the danger of a coronavirus spike.

If Republicans aren’t willing to voice full-throated support for public schools, voters will have a chance to send them a message in November.