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‘Too many variables’: Indianapolis parents, staff worry opening schools in person risks safety

Students work at their desks in a classroom at Crispus Attucks High School, a public school in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Most Indianapolis districts like IPS are asking parents to choose between full-time in-person and virtual options.
Photo by Alan Petersime/Chalkbeat

Shellie Rich isn’t sure if she’ll send her 8-year-old back to her Indianapolis Public Schools classroom.

She expected IPS to choose a hybrid model, where students would attend class part-time in person and part-time online. Instead, the district told parents to choose — by Friday — between sending their children back to school buildings full time or having them learn completely virtually.

Rich, whose daughter attends Center for Inquiry School 2, fears that bringing students back full time as coronavirus cases continue to mount will end in an inevitable second shutdown.

“This feels unsustainable to me,” she said.

Most Indianapolis districts like IPS are asking parents to choose between full-time in-person and virtual options. Washington Township this week walked back on initial plans to reopen school buildings and announced school would be entirely virtual. Wayne Township delayed reopening, buying more time to prepare.

Educators and parents generally agree that classroom learning is more effective than remote learning. Reopening school buildings is especially important for working parents. The Marion County Public Health Department director said Monday that students can safely return to classrooms if schools follow safety guidelines.

But in interviews with Chalkbeat, emails to school boards, and comments on Facebook, Indianapolis parents and staff voiced apprehension that districts will be able to follow through on their promises to keep children safe. They pointed to Indiana’s rising number of coronavirus cases, insufficient funding for safety measures, and the sheer logistics of forcing children to stay 6 feet apart while absorbing lessons and being with classmates.

“I don’t believe the school is able to handle the spread of the disease as much as they’d like to,” said Shawanda Tyson, whose kindergartner and sixth grader attend IPS Ignite Achievement Academy.

How and when to reopen schools have been swept into national political controversy in recent days. President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have threatened to withhold funding if schools don’t reopen their classrooms in the fall.

Large districts are beginning to announce more cautious reopening plans. In California, where cases have surged in recent weeks, the state’s two largest districts announced Monday that they would operate all remotely in the fall. In New York, students will attend classes in person one to three days a week.

Tyson said she’d prefer a hybrid option like the model proposed in New York. Her son, who has autism, loves school, and she wants him to be in the classroom. But she doesn’t feel confident that students will practice social distancing. Right now, she’d choose e-learning, as Washington Township will offer.

“I think it was a district that knew what they could handle,” Tyson said.

Current and former IPS staff members have expressed concerns about the district’s plan in comments on Facebook.

Former IPS instructor Rachel Meiser said she worries students from low-income communities will be disproportionately affected by the district’s all-or-nothing approach. She taught at William Penn School 49 about three years ago, where about 75% of students are economically disadvantaged.

Meiser doesn’t think the district is thinking through the practicality of its plan for students who, by choice or necessity, return to school buildings.

“There’s just so many questions in the air,” Meiser said. “Any science teacher would tell you there’s too many variables.”

Many parents and staff don’t fault their districts for appearing ill prepared.

An IPS support staff member said she doesn’t feel local and state governments have given school districts enough funding to properly carry out their reopening plans.

The staff member, who did not want to be named for fear of jeopardizing her job, said she doesn’t feel comfortable being part of a potential chain of infection.

In an email to the school board president, IPS parent Breanna Lasley said she worried students wouldn’t be able to practice social distancing in their classrooms. She wants more definitive guidance on curriculum and parent expectations.

“I urge you to both push back the start of school, as well as to formulate solid plans with definite information before making us decide if the risk is worth sending our children back to school!” she wrote.

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