Indianapolis Public Schools is poised to start the year entirely virtually, a reversal from the district’s initial plan to open classrooms for in-person instruction full time and a concession to the worsening coronavirus pandemic in Indiana.
Under a plan announced Wednesday by Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, which the school board is expected to consider Thursday, the district will remain entirely remote at least until October. The first day of school is Aug. 17, set after IPS delayed the start of school to see if COVID-19 cases would decline.
The state’s largest district previously planned to bring students and teachers back in person while also offering a virtual option. Johnson has held to that plan since June, saying that it is the best option for student learning and well-being. Now, Johnson is acknowledging that the district cannot safely bring students and teachers back to classrooms while Indianapolis remains in the midst of an out-of-control pandemic. Over 1,000 COVID-19 cases were reported in Indiana on Friday, more than on any other day of the crisis.
“The goal is still to get our kids back in person as soon as we can, but we have to do it in a way that feels safe,” said Johnson at a media briefing after the announcement.
IPS is the latest Marion County school district to shift to an entirely remote start to school. Over the last two weeks, several districts have delayed reopening or gone entirely virtual. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, who has taken a relatively hands-off approach, announced last week that Marion County schools could not reopen in person at least until Aug. 5.
Hogsett and Marion County Public Health Department Director Virginia Caine are expected to release additional guidance this week for the city’s 11 districts, charter schools, and private schools.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, however, continues to allow schools to make their own reopening plans. While Marion County schools are taking increasingly cautious approaches to reopening, other districts in the state have moved forward. On the same day IPS announced its change in plans, Avon schools — a suburban district less than 15 miles west of Indianapolis — held its first day of school for students to return to classrooms full time.
The news that IPS would begin the year virtually drew mixed reactions on social media, with some parents feeling relieved and others left in a desperate situation.
IPS will attempt to mitigate some of the downsides of the shift to remote learning by forming “learning hubs” with community partners where some students will be supervised and receive help as they do school work, according to the district. Those hubs will also serve students who receive physical or mental therapy that cannot be done virtually.
The change in course comes at a moment when Indianapolis teachers have voiced growing concerns about the safety of returning in person. In a letter submitted to the board and posted online Monday, the IPS teachers union called for the district to begin the year remotely.
“This is not the time to expose our school communities to this mysterious and unpredictable virus. Neighboring school districts have delayed the start of in-person classroom instruction; we should replicate their plans and not risk the lives of our children and school personnel,” wrote Ron Swann, president of the Indianapolis Education Association.
Bernade Flournoy, an IPS parent and elementary school art teacher, said that she believes beginning school fully virtually is the best decision for safety since the COVID-19 numbers are going up. She also believes it will be hard to get young children to follow health guidance that requires them to keep a distance from others and wear masks.
“Our students, they’re not little robots,” she said. “Let’s not experiment on the children and the staff.”
Kyandra Pittman-Chandler, a special education assistant in IPS, said that she trusts her principal to manage reopening safely, but she believes beginning entirely virtually is the right approach for now. She can still work with students remotely because she’s experienced and creative, she said. “Especially if you already built a background with the family, it is not going to be that hard. But it can be challenging for someone who has not had the experience.”
IPS struggled with the abrupt shift to remote instruction in the spring, as educators sought to serve students who struggled with food insecurity, limited access to internet and technology, and uneven supervision from working parents.
It’s not yet clear how well the district used the summer months to improve the delivery and quality of instruction and student support. IPS has spent about $12 million on devices for all students in anticipation that it might be forced to go all remote, and it plans to provide hot spots for students without internet access.
For IPS parent Tamiko Bass, who had already chosen to have her fourth grader and ninth grader learn online from home, the proposed switch to start the school year remotely felt like confirmation that she had made the right decision.
“I’m not the only one. Someone else is thinking on a higher level that this may be the best thing to do,” Bass said. “Maybe everything is not ready for these kids to go back.”
E-learning was a “no-brainer” because she didn’t want to put her family at risk of exposure, but Bass said she also believes IPS is improving its approach to remote learning. The district’s efforts felt “very uncoordinated” in the spring, she said, but now IPS’ remote learning plan calls for more daily interaction with teachers.
The district is increasing its focus on live lessons and encouraging teachers to build relationships with students and families, Johnson said. “Remote learning doesn’t mean that a student or a family should feel like they are on a remote island by themselves.”
Stephanie Wang contributed reporting.