November 17, 2020

COVID-19 School Turmoil, Teacher Pay Face Indiana Lawmakers

In this file photo taken on Monday, March 9, 2020, Speaker of the House Todd Huston, R-Fishers, speaks with the media after being sworn in at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. - AP Photo/AJ Mast

In this file photo taken on Monday, March 9, 2020, Speaker of the House Todd Huston, R-Fishers, speaks with the media after being sworn in at the Statehouse in Indianapolis.

AP Photo/AJ Mast

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The turmoil that Indiana schools have faced from the coronavirus pandemic will be a top concern of state legislators during their upcoming session, the leader of the Indiana House said Monday.

Indiana lawmakers will take the first formal steps toward their 2021 session when they gather at the Statehouse on Tuesday for the Legislature’s organizational meetings. It will also be the first meeting of the House and Senate since the coronavirus pandemic was first sweeping across the country in March.

Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said he was worried about children possibly having more than a year of their education disrupted by the pandemic.

Schools across the state were closed for the final months of last school year out of coronavirus concerns. Indiana schools largely resumed in-person classes this fall, but many have shifted to more virtual classes in recent weeks amid sharp increases in COVID-19 deaths, hospitalizations and confirmed new infections.

A focus of state officials needs to be on how to help students catch up, Huston said during an online program with other legislative leaders sponsored by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

“This wasn’t the schools’ fault, the teachers’ fault, the parents’ fault, the kids’ fault. This was just a unique time,” Huston said. “We’re going to have to figure out how we walk hand in hand to help support, particularly low-income students who, I think, have felt disproportionately the challenge of this pandemic.”

Tests have confirmed COVID-19 infections among more than 8,200 students and 1,600 teachers across Indiana since the start of the current school year, according to a weekly state health department report updated Monday. Indiana’s coronavirus hospitalizations are up about 250% since late September.

When the new legislative session starts in January, lawmakers will face drafting a new two-year state budget with uncertainties about state tax collections during the national recession and whether Congress will eventually approve additional financial assistance for states.

State officials in September approved a method to maintain full funding for school districts regardless of whether they were offering instruction virtually or in the classroom during this fall semester. Legislators will likely have to take up that issue because current state law caps per-pupil funding for students who take at least half their classes virtually at 85% of full in-person student funding.

During the Legislature’s Organization Day last year, thousands of teachers flooded the Statehouse to demand increased teacher pay. The Republican-dominated Legislature didn’t boost education funding during its 2020 session and a teacher pay commission appointed by GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb in 2019 hasn’t yet released its recommendations.

The state’s largest teachers union argued Monday that lawmakers need to take action regarding Indiana’s lagging teacher pay and increased stress on educators during the pandemic.

If not addressed, teacher resignations and retirements “will only worsen,” as will the ongoing teacher shortage, Indiana State Teachers Association President Keith Gambill said.

“We are advocating for lawmakers to keep their promises to fully and equitably fund our public schools, to pay our teachers as professionals and not to cut K-12 education funding in the coming session,” Gambill said. “We must ensure that students do not pay the price in this pandemic, nor can we afford to fall further behind on addressing teacher pay.”

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