Indiana schools to have flexibility when reopening

By CASEY SMITH
The Associated Press/Report for America

INDIANAPOLIS — Students in Indiana will return to school in the coming months, but what that looks like will vary widely across the state.

Following the Indiana Department of Education’s release of school reentry guidelines last week, State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick addressed teachers and administrators during a webinar Tuesday, emphasizing the freedom local leaders have to determine how their schools will operate during the coronavirus pandemic.

With many schools starting the academic year by early August, some are expecting to hold all or most classes online, McCormick said. Others — especially in rural areas — plan to return to the “brick and mortar” setting as soon as possible. Numerous “hybrid schedules” are also taking shape, allowing students to alternate days spent learning in the classroom and remotely.

“We’re all trying to get schools back in,” McCormick said. “We just have to remember that that’s going to look different across counties and across our state.”

The reentry plan provided by the state is broad and non-mandatory, meaning it will be up to school districts to decide whether students and faculty would have to undergo health screenings, wear masks and adhere to social distancing best practices.

Some schools could choose to require masks at all times, while others might elect to only require them for certain activities or not at all, McCormick said. To assist, the governor’s office is planning on purchasing 2 million masks for distribution by the state’s education department. It’s not a long-term fix, but rather a way to help out schools that will require them to be worn, she said.

Questions were raised during the webinar about how districts should proceed when there are confirmed cases of COVID-19 in their school populations. According to the state recommendations, schools should close for two to five days so that facilities could be cleaned, further testing could be conducted and contract tracing efforts could be made. The in-and-out nature could mean schools holding in-person classes will have to identify “unique” solutions to minimize disruptions.

“The six feet apart, the time that might be needed for schools to be cleaned, it’s going to be tough,” McCormick said. “The (state) guidance left enough room and flexibility in it, though, for smart solutions to these things.”

Uncertainty also remains about waivers that schools were granted to reimburse them for providing needy students with grab-and-go meals, which are set to expire Aug. 30. McCormick said answers about those should come soon.

The “lack of continuity” stems from variations in the prevalence and spread of coronavirus in different communities, McCormick said, adding that there will be no requirements or approvals necessary for schools’ reentry plans. The onus is instead on individual school boards and local health departments to develop specific policies for their districts.

The state will continue to update its school reentry guidance in response to pandemic changes. The first change, noted during the webinar, eliminated a previous recommendation for physical barriers between drivers and students on school buses due to safety concerns. Additional guidance for performing arts activities such as marching band and choir are also expected in the near future.

“A lot of things are playing into this,” McCormick said. “It may not look exactly how we want it to look, but given the situation with COVID, you’re going to have to have some flexibility.”

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.”




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