July 15, 2020

Indiana Schools Reopening Could Be Complicated By COVID-19 Infection Increase

An empty classroom in a school building. - Creative Commons

An empty classroom in a school building.

Creative Commons

Some states are using COVID-19 infection rates to decide whether a school should resume classroom teaching or offer remote learning options. New York’s governor announced Monday a school can reopen if the average COVID-19 infection rate in its region is less than 5 percent over a 14 day average.

In Indiana, officials are not using specific metrics to guide local school district leaders as they decide when to reopen buildings and when to stay virtual. Rather, districts are taking an assembly of input from state and local health and education officials to make that decision.

State health commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said the state does not have specific metrics for schools to follow in their counties, but that could change as the state’s infection rate climbs. 

Indiana’s average infection rate climbed to 7.1 percent over a seven day average on Wednesday. In mid-June the average infection rate was at a low of 4.2 percent.

The increase forced Gov. Eric Holcomb to slow the state’s reopening plan for at least another two weeks. Indiana was set to move into its final phase this weekend.

Despite the reopening delay, local school districts continue to make their own decisions about returning to the classroom.

Marion County, just like the state, is experiencing an increase in infection, since mid-June.

In Marion County, districts announced a multitude of instruction plans and options for families to choose from -- including full-time in-person classroom teaching (Indianapolis Public Schools), some students attending school every other day (Warren Township), and virtual-only learning (Washington Township).

Box, during the governor’s office coronavirus press conference, said if the infection rate climbs into that higher rate, the state may “strongly recommend” a change in how schools are operating.

“(W)hen we start to climb up around that 10 to 15 percent positivity rate -- especially if that's persistent or showing signs of continuing to rise -- is when we're starting to, you know, definitely look at the things that we can do to impact that.”

In New York, schools will close if regional infection rates increase over 9 percent after August 1.

Box said she and other health experts, like members of the Indiana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and family doctors are taking in part in helping districts make decisions about operating. 

This week the Indiana State Teachers Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, asked Holcomb to take a more direct role in guiding the reopening of schools. Association leaders say they are fearful students and educators could become infected with the virus in classroom, buses and other interactions during a school day.

Holcomb said he is considering the association’s request to mandate all students in grades 6-12 wear masks during in-person instruction.

The Indiana State Department of Health added 700 confirmed COVID-19 cases to the state's total Wednesday, raising it to 53,370.

Contact WFYI education reporter Eric Weddle at eweddle@wfyi.org or call (317) 614-0470. Follow on Twitter: @ericweddle.

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