CASEY SMITH - Associated Press/Report for America
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — For many Indiana students who returned to classrooms this week for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak forced schools to transition to remote learning last March, the school day offered a mixed bag of emotions, anxiety and plenty of new health-related protocols.
Avon Community Schools, which was the first district in Indiana to close after a student tested positive for the coronavirus in March, became one of the first to restart in-person fall classes Wednesday. Spokesperson Stacey Forcey-Moore said the district just west of Indianapolis saw 85% of its nearly 10,000 students return for in-person learning.
“The first day of school was great,” Forcey-Moore said in an email to The Associated Press. “Students exceeded our expectations and were amazing at wearing masks and learning new procedures.”
Destiny Brewer, whose children are fourth and ninth graders in the district, said she sent her kids back to school “without much hesitation" and that the first day back “went even better than expected.” The Avon mother who works full-time said finding childcare can be costly and e-learning “wasn't substantial enough” for her kids at the end of the spring term.
“From the start of the day, the high school bus was entirely masked up, and it sounds like the elementary bus only had a few kids who needed to be reminded to keep them on,” Brewer said.
Brewer said at the elementary level much of the first day was spent teaching safety precautions and during recess, all masks stayed on. She said both of her children said their classrooms included spaced-out desks, assigned seating and hand sanitizer use between classes was required.
“The first day back was just fine, in my opinion. I'll be asking them for updates every day after school," Brewer said. “But unless that changes, they're staying in ..."
In southern Indiana, Greater Clark County Schools' 10,000-student district also reopened school buildings Wednesday. Masks, social distancing, contact tracing and regular cleanings of classrooms and hallways were all part of the return.
Superintendent Mark Laughner said 68% of parents who responded to a district survey indicated they wanted their children to attend regular, in-person classes. Laughner said the district is still waiting to see final numbers for in-person student returns but expects that around two-thirds of the students in the district will physically come in to school as long as they're able.
Laughner estimated bus ridership was down by 50% compared to other school years, a result of more parents driving their children to school. Students who ride buses are required to wear face masks and have their temperatures taken before getting on, he said.
“The return back is all going very smoothly,” Laughner said. “Kids — even the elementary-aged ones — have handled the masks and social distancing really well. Yeah, there was a lot of anxiety the first day back, but I think as the day went on, people were feeling a lot better about things.”
A majority of students attending Brownsburg Community Schools, west of Indianapolis in Hendricks County, filed off school buses Thursday morning and started their fall classes in-person. Superintendent Jim Snapp said 87% of the district's 9,400 students were physically present at school on the first day back, with the rest opting for at-home and online learning.
“Those students showed up for school ready to follow the new rules of school,” Snapp said. “They were excited to see each other and their teachers and eager to learn.”
But despite high in-person student returns, Renee Sui, of Brownsburg, said her fifth-grade son “absolutely isn't going back into school yet.” On her son's first day back, Sui said he was connecting with his teacher and school aides over Zoom, and that digital educational activities were already available on his school-issued laptop.
“He was doing this already before, and I don't know why he can't keep doing it now,” Sui said. “He still interacts with teachers and other students. He still has homework and writes essays and reads and takes tests. The difference is he's at home and safer.”
Sui said she would willing to reconsider letting her son go back to school in-person in a few months, but “only after (the school district) proves they're doing right” and that “all students are shown to be healthy and safe.”
With coronavirus cases across parts of the state on the rise again, the online option is the only one being offered in a growing number of Indiana school districts. Indianapolis Public Schools, Washington, Pike and Portage townships, Anderson Community Schools and Hamilton Southeastern Schools have all announced a virtual-only return for all or part of the fall semester.
In Beech Grove, a city-suburb of Indianapolis, students also started their online-only return Thursday morning.
Paul Kasier, Beech Grove City School district superintendent said staff started the first day of virtual learning from their classrooms while students follow along at home. The district gave all students iPads or Chromebooks to ensure they're able to work remotely.
On Aug. 10, the district plans to allow students to return to school buildings in-person, too. For those students who elect to do so, their temperature will be checked upon arrival to school. Desks in classrooms will be spaced 6 feet apart, teachers’ desks will be lined with plastic shields and fogging machines are expected to be used to clean buses and classrooms.
Middle school and high school students who opt for brick-and-mortar learning will only be allowed to enter schools two days a week. The remainder of the week's classes must be taken online, per the district's hybrid back-to-school model.
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.”