More Indiana schools move online as virus spikes

The Associated Press/Report for America

INDIANAPOLIS — Dozens of Indiana school districts are changing in-person learning schedules or sending students home as the state continues to report record increases in new coronavirus infections and hospitalizations.

Many schools are having trouble staying open due to the growing number of teachers and students who are sick or quarantined, Indiana health commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said during a news conference Wednesday.

While Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has insisted that mask-wearing and social distancing “are proven to work,” so schools can remain open for in-person instruction, Box expressed more caution: “One way or the other, things will shut down and decrease if we don’t take proactive action now."

All schools in Marion County, which includes Indianapolis, are required to close and return to virtual instruction by the end of the month, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett announced Thursday. Schools are encouraged to close sooner, if possible, and instruction will remain online until at least Jan. 15.

Indianapolis students have been testing positive for coronavirus infections at triple the rate they were a couple of months ago, said Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Public Health Department. Tracing has not uncovered significant infection spread in schools, but it has become more difficult to control.

“When your community spread is rising so rapidly and getting at higher numbers, then it is not the same safe environment in our schools that we had prior to this,” Caine said.

Administrators at Hamilton Southeastern Schools, 20 miles northeast of Indianapolis, made a similar announcement Wednesday that all students in grades 7-12 will go “100% virtual” through the start of winter break. The district has reported 146 coronavirus cases and 1,638 related quarantines among students and staff since Oct. 19.

Beginning next week, students in Munster in northwestern Indiana will also transition to virtual learning through early December. School Town of Munster Superintendent Jeff Hendrix noted increased positivity rates and staffing challenges as more district employees are required to quarantine.

“With this, it is difficult to staff all in-person classrooms on a daily basis,” Hendrix said.

The Indiana State Department of Health reported more than 2,200 new cases of COVID-19 in schools in its weekly data release on Monday, bringing the statewide total to more than 8,500 cases among students, teachers and staff since the start of the school year.

As of Monday, 1,589 schools have had at least one confirmed case of COVID-19, with more than 100 of those schools reporting a case for the first time this week. An additional 353 schools have not reported any cases, and 424 schools have yet to report their data to the state.

Small and rural school districts are also closing school doors before the end of the semester.

Maconaquah School Corporation in Bunker Hill, Indiana, transitioned its 2,000 students to remote learning Thursday, with a plan to resume in-person classes Nov. 30.

Echoing other districts, Southwest Allen County Schools officials in northeastern Indiana cited a staffing shortage, due to the number of employees in quarantine, for halting middle and high school in-person instruction for the next two weeks.

“This is not to say we have not had staff and students test positive throughout the district, but this is not the primary reason for the shift,” said Superintendent Phil Downs. As of Monday, “we had 23 classrooms without coverage — 16 alone at the secondary level,” Downs said.

Hamilton Community Schools in neighboring Steuben County has also transitioned to virtual learning until at least Nov. 30. Superintendent Anthony Cassel said its quarantine list “has grown to over 90 plus students and staff.”

Holcomb announced Wednesday that he would reinstate some coronavirus restrictions after several weeks of refusing to take action. The new steps will limit social gathering sizes and decrease spectator capacity at indoor K-12 events in counties designated by the state health department as higher-risk for coronavirus spread.

The Republican governor decided in late September to lift nearly all of Indiana’s business and crowd size restrictions. Since then, Indiana hospitals have seen a 200% increase in COVID-19 patients and the seven-day rolling average of deaths has jumped from 10 a day to 38, just short of the state’s peak in late April.

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