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Holcomb: Indiana schools ‘can and should open for instruction’

Gov. Eric Holcomb
Gov. Eric Holcomb
AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb reiterated Friday that he believes schools can safely reopen for the upcoming school year, despite statewide coronavirus cases climbing past 36,000.

“We believe, where we are right now, schools can and should open for instruction, and we wouldn’t have made that decision or endorsed the proposal to go forward if we thought otherwise,” Holcomb said during his regular public update.

As one of the final pieces in Holcomb’s plan to reopen Indiana by July 4, the state released guidelines Friday for students and teachers to return to classrooms for the first time since mid-March. Those guidelines included recommendations for screening students and staff for the coronavirus, maintaining social distancing in classrooms and buses, and creating health plans for vulnerable individuals.

Following the release of the 38-page report, the state’s leading health expert, Dr. Kristina Box, said it’s up to schools to decide what are the right precautions to take in their communities. While health officials will advise schools, none of the state’s recommendations for reopening are mandatory.

“If we continue to do those things that will know will decrease the spread of COVID-19, and we do contact tracing and know that we can contact trace every individual back and that we don’t have a large amount of community spread, schools should be able to stay open safely and educate our students,” Box said.

She noted that it may be difficult to maintain social distancing among young children but added that the coronavirus appears to have “minimal to no effect” on children and the spread of the virus could be limited through precautions such as vigilant hand washing.

Even if children often don’t show any or severe symptoms of COVID-19, they are still thought to spread the virus. And last month the state reported its first case of MIS-C, a rare but serious coronavirus-linked disease that targets children.

The state formed its guidelines by looking at other countries and states that have reopened, as well as Indiana day cares that continued to serve families through the state-mandated stay-at-home order.

Officials “believe the risks and benefits of schools opening certainly favor the benefits of kids going back to school, being fed in a school environment, their mental health, social emotional needs ... that will be promoted by going back to school safely,” said Indiana Family and Social Services Administration Secretary Jennifer Sullivan.

Holcomb did not publicly address concerns raised by educators that changes in the classroom to adhere to health recommendations could come at great costs to schools. In an email, spokesperson Rachel Hoffmeyer pointed to federal relief from the CARES Act. She also said districts had requested reimbursements for cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, such as masks, from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

State schools chief Jennifer McCormick is expected to address educators Tuesday, and districts will likely outline their plans in the coming weeks and months.

Box suggested that schools could make any number of changes, such as keeping high school students in the one classroom with a virtual presence from different subject-level teachers, or staggering the days of the week that students come into buildings.

“It’s really up to schools to be as creative as they want to be,” she said.

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