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This Indianapolis school reopened carefully. Why didn’t students come back?

A line of elementary school students in uniforms walk past their teacher into their classroom.
Tindley Summit students walk into their classroom on the first day back in person.
Stephanie Wang/Chalkbeat

It wasn’t technically the first day of school.

Tindley Summit Academy in Indianapolis had started the year with two weeks of online learning to let coronavirus cases subside, but this was the first day back in classrooms since March. The morning still had that buzzy excitement to it, though maybe the jitters were amplified by how different school would look this year.

I was dispatched to the first day back by the public radio show and podcast “This American Life,” in partnership with Chalkbeat, to see how reopening would go. This week’s episode of “This American Life” explores the national angst and anxiety over how students can safely return to classrooms during the pandemic — and Indiana has been on the front lines of that issue.

I’d been following Tindley Summit’s reopening plans since early August. Principal David McGuire knew that letting me watch the school welcome students back into the building could mean I’d end up scrutinizing their response if they encountered a positive case at Summit. COVID-19, school leaders told me, was a reality that they were just going to have to deal with.

But I don’t think any of us expected what happened on the first day back.

Drop-off goes by without a hitch. The kids settle into their classrooms pretty quickly. All that planning is paying off. Mr. McGuire and I speed walk through the school, and we see kids patiently waiting to use the bathrooms, where they’re only allowed to use every other stall to maintain space. He points out a sixth grade class reading “The Outsiders” at their desks that have shields set up on them like little cubicles. The kids don’t even fuss that much about wearing their masks.

It seems like a smooth start to being back in school.

Except… for one thing.

As we pass by a second grade classroom, we both notice that there’s only a single kid in it.

Listen to the episode of “This American Life” below, or download the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or Pandora. Find more information on other ways to tune in and how to subscribe to “This American Life” here.

This American Life ep. 715: Long-Awaited Asteroid Finally Hits Earth

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

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