As the novel coronavirus continues to spread nationwide, a wave of states announced school closures aimed at slowing its progress.
By Monday morning, 273 of the Indiana’s public school districts announced closures, according to Gov. Eric Holcomb. That leaves 16 still open. Holcomb said those districts are working with the state Department of Education to determine next steps.
On Wednesday, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state reached 39, according to the Indiana State Department of Health — jumping from 24 on Monday. Of those, 11 were reported in Marion County. Two people have died.
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The length of closure varies by district, but generally schools are closing through spring break. For many districts, that means students won’t return until early or mid-April. And those return dates are tentative.
In Marion County, all public schools are closed until at least April 6, affecting more than 150,000 students.
Unlike neighboring states, including Illinois and Ohio, Indiana has not mandated statewide school closures. But the state saw a flood of districts announce closures last week after Holcomb announced schools could waive up to 20 days of classes — signaling his support for schools temporarily shutting their doors.
Avon Community Schools remains the only district where a confirmed student case of COVID-19 was reported. The district was the first in the state to cancel classes last week after one student tested positive and another showed symptoms. Other superintendents pointed to research from past outbreaks that found that school closures are much more effective at controlling the spread of disease when they happen early on.
Cancellations include after-school activities. This comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended limiting in-person events to less than 50 people for eight weeks.
Nearly half of Indiana students depend on schools for healthy meals, including free or discounted breakfast, lunch, and even dinner. And in many Indianapolis districts, the numbers are even higher. That means school closures are putting extra pressure on low-income families.
Indianapolis schools are trying to fill that gap by keeping some schools open to distribute meals — as many do during school breaks — and giving students packages with several meals for the week. Some districts are also delivering meals to large apartment complexes. Wayne Township is delivering free meals at more than 1,000 bus stops around the district. Families can also get meals from community organizations such as the city parks.
The waiver allows schools to take up to 20 days without making them up later or offering remote learning. Those days can be used consecutively or as needed, Holcomb said.
Still, many districts are pushing to continue teaching students through the closure, offering take-home packets or online lessons.
Avon Community Schools Superintendent Margaret Hoernemann said the district will make e-learning a priority because it’s important for children to be “intellectually stimulated” every day.
If districts are providing e-learning, that means teachers will upload new lessons for students to complete each day. These typically include activities, videos, and tests. Teachers will also track and report attendance as usual, based on who logs in to finish their work.
Most districts are also offering paper packets of schoolwork for families who don’t have access to a computer or internet. In those situations, progress and attendance is nearly impossible to track, since students likely won’t turn in their work until they return to school.
Indiana has a head start in providing students online learning. It is one of only 12 states that already has a formal e-learning policy. Still, only 30% of Indiana schools held an e-learning day last year.
But those plans have largely been designed for short-term, weather-related closures. And a Chalkbeat analysis of state data found that only 30% of Indiana schools reported using an e-learning day last year. Wealthier schools were almost twice as likely to have taken advantage of online learning than those with high levels of poverty.
Whether schools can successfully adjust for long-term remote learning remains to be seen.
For schools doing e-learning, teachers will continue to upload lessons and communicate with students. In Avon, Hoernemann said teachers are available during school hours to message or email with students. At least one teacher also held a video conference with students. In Avon, teachers were working from home rather than in school buildings.
It’s unclear what closures will mean for teachers if schools are not providing e-learning. It’s also yet to be seen what this means for bus drivers, food service, and other hourly workers, as districts continue to work out the details of their closure plans.
Teachers’ salaries are covered by their contracts, and the state waiver allowing schools to cancel classes without makeup days means teachers will be paid even while campuses are closed.
It’s up to each district to decide whether to pay hourly workers — including bus drivers, custodians, food service employees, and paraprofessionals who assist in classrooms — who are typically paid only for days when students are present.
Several districts, including Avon, Decatur Township, Wayne Township, Pike Township, and Indianapolis Public Schools, have already committed to paying their hourly workers. But it’s unclear if all districts statewide are doing so. And it remains unclear if districts would continue to pay hourly workers if the state or federal government recommended longer closures.
The state health department has a 24-hour Epidemiology Resource Center and can answer general questions at: 877-826-0011.