INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Dozens of Indiana schools are struggling to stay open as growing numbers of coronavirus infections and related quarantines exacerbate a preexisting statewide teacher and substitute shortage.
As of last Monday, 1,755 schools across the state have reported at least one positive case of COVID-19, according to the Indiana State Department of Health’s weekly data update. That brings the statewide total to more than 15,000 students, teachers and staff who have tested positive for the coronavirus.
While some schools have elected to close their doors entirely, others are asking teachers to continue with in-person instruction. Oftentimes, that means taking on more classes and duties to compensate for those out sick or in quarantine. In other instances, that's also meant teachers are asked to keep working even after they’ve been exposed to COVID-19.
That's been the case in Shelbyville Central Schools, 30 miles southwest of Indianapolis, where the staffing shortage has become so dire that district leadership are allowing teachers who were exposed to COVID-19 to keep working without the 14-day quarantine recommended for close contacts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Shelby County Health Department emphasized the importance of keeping critical infrastructure workers like teachers in place after an exposure, and urged schools to keep their buildings open in a memo released Nov. 17: “If schools cannot effectively staff for in-person instruction, the recommendation is to follow the (state health department) guidelines allowing employees who have been exposed to someone that is positive for COVID-19 to continue to work as long as they remain asymptomatic…”
Shelbyville Central employees are expected to screen themselves daily and monitor for symptoms, wear a mask, social distance and clean their workspaces, according to the local health department. They've also been directed to continue to quarantine at home when not at work.
These situations are “unsustainable and unsafe," Indiana State Teachers Association president Keith Gambill said in a statement. The state’s largest teachers’ union is now calling for schools in counties hardest hit by COVID-19 to return to virtual learning and urging state officials to require that local school districts comply with state recommendations for school operations.
“While we believe in-person instruction for students is best under normal circumstances, these aren’t normal circumstances,” Gambill said. "The lack of consistency within and across school districts is causing serious instability for students and educators alike. We simply cannot continue to put them and their families’ lives at risk.”
State health officials say they still haven’t seen evidence of widespread transmission inside school settings and that a blanket approach doesn’t work because of variations in schools districts' sizes and staffing resources. The latest guidance from Indiana's health department says, “schools may remain open to in-person instruction at all levels as conditions permit.”
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has resisted another statewide closure of schools like the one he issued in March.
The Republican governor has instead insisted that mask-wearing and social distancing “are proven to work” so schools can remain open for in-person instruction. Currently, decisions about when schools should close is left up to local officials.
Still, as virus spread increases, more Indiana school districts are changing in-person learning schedules or sending students home altogether.
All schools in Marion County, which includes Indianapolis, are now required to close and return to virtual instruction by Monday. Schools are encouraged to close sooner, if possible, and instruction will remain online until at least Jan. 15.
Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Fishers, a suburb of Indianapolis, has elected to move students in grades 7-12 to virtual-only learning, citing too few healthy teachers and concerns over local hospital capacities. With substitute shortages mounting, district staff are still "trying to triage” for elementary school instruction, said Kim Lippe, executive director of staff and student services in a recent board meeting. That includes asking teachers to cover multiple classes and asking administrators to substitute teach.