INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana's top education official said Thursday that she think schools can safely reopen despite mounting reports of students and staffers testing positive for the coronavirus within days of returning to the classroom in some districts.
Jennifer McCormick, the state's school superintendent, said that she thinks it’s best for medical experts to determine if, when or how schools should reopen.
“Based on what I have been told, we are good to go — with provisions,” she said during a webinar.
The Indiana Department of Education is also leaving it up to health officials to set thresholds for coronavirus positivity rates that would require a school to close, McCormick said. She and other state officials have resisted calls to provide more guidance on how schools should reopen and when they should close down again in the event of an outbreak.
McCormick said the state's reopening recommendations released in June were an attempt to get information out early and that her office is “continuously” working with local districts to craft safe back-to-school plans.
So far, 31 Indiana school districts have told the IDOE that they're currently relying only on virtual instruction. Of the schools in the state that have resumed in-person instruction, at least a dozen have reported students or teachers testing positive for the coronavirus since the school year started.
The state health commissioner, Dr. Kristina Box, said Wednesday that she thinks it’s safe for schools to reopen during the pandemic and that having a positive case of the virus in a school “should not be a cause for panic or a reason to close.”
When a student tests positive for COVID-19, “we are at the mercy of families calling the school,” McCormick said. Currently, it's possible for a child who tests positive to attend school without the district being aware, although local health departments that are made aware of those cases are communicating such with local school leaders to ensure proper contact tracing, she said.
Dr. Kristina Box, the state health commissioner, said Wednesday that when it comes to transparency about positive coronavirus cases within schools, she supports releasing data, but wouldn’t promise to release that information due to concerns about violating privacy laws.
McCormick said she also supports a statewide database as long as there is no individually identifiable data. She noted that the IDOE is already working with the state health department to make such information available.
With state officials still considering requiring testing, McCormick said Indiana education officials are still working on guidance for virtually proctored exams.
For some assessments, however, a federal waiver would be needed to push back or eliminate the testing requirement, McCormick said. So far, there's been no word from the federal government, but she said the state will do “anything we can” to get assessment waivers.
Nearly 400 schools will serve as polling sites for the November election, further raising concerns about keeping the coronavirus out of schools, McCormick said.
“What we don’t want is those schools to be used as polling sites where we’re going to have to deep clean,” she said. “It layers on a whole other concern that ... frankly, right now, it’s unnecessary.”
While some districts have elected to make Election Day a scheduled day off, McCormick said her office supports absentee mail-in voting. On Wednesday, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb maintained that he believes in-person voting for the November election is safe. Indiana does not plan to offer a universal vote-by-mail option, he said.
Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.