July 18, 2020

IPS Delays School Start For 2 Weeks Due To COVID-19 Concerns

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, center, listens during the IPS Board of Commisioners meeting on Saturday, July 18, 2020. - Eric Weddle/WFYI News

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, center, listens during the IPS Board of Commisioners meeting on Saturday, July 18, 2020.

Eric Weddle/WFYI News

The reopening of Indianapolis Public Schools is delayed two weeks in response to the rising number of COVID-19 infections in the community.

In-person classes and remote learning will now begin on Aug. 17, instead of the previously planned Aug. 3 start. Families may also reconsider whether they want full-time virtual learning when school starts -- the original deadline to register was Friday.

IPS joins other city school districts opting to push back the start of school or take other measures. Wayne Township Schools delayed its restart by two-weeks and Washington Township Schools will provide virtual-only courses for now. Some students at Warren Township Schools will attend class in-person some days, and learn from home the rest of the week. 

The IPS Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the delay Saturday during its annual summer retreat -- an hours-long public meeting held at the Central Library.

IPS Board President Michael O'Connor said the district of around 32,000 students is obligated to take steps to slow the coronavirus in Marion County, from mandating masks to delaying the start of school.

The county's most recent average infection rate climbed to 7.1 percent, over a seven day average. In mid-June the average infection rate was 5.4 percent.

"So we're balancing the data against the important services we provide to our families and to our children," O'Connor said.

Superintendent Aleeisa Johnson said there is an abundance of guidance from local and state health officials on how to open school buildings, but she wants "an anchoring point" on the infection rate for when school districts must make changes.

Indiana officials are not using specific metrics to guide local school district leaders. Some states, like New York, won't let a school reopen unless the infection rate of its region is less than 5 percent over a 14 day average.

"People feel more comforted by when we know, where the line is," Johnson said about the infection rate. "And we know we're either going toward the line or away from the line."

Nonetheless, Johnson said, the decision to delay is complex and worrisome, as she and board members weigh the burden on families, and who benefits from the decisions on how school operates for the 2020-21 school year.

"There's always going to be groups of folks on both sides of that question. And the question becomes, 'what then, is the trade off that we make?,'" she said. "How do we do, sort of, the greatest good, particularly as it relates to our most vulnerable students?"

Johnson has stressed how Black families and other people of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 due to health and environmental conditions. Less than a quarter of IPS students are white.

Many parents and guardians have to work at jobs making it very challenging for those families to opt-in to remote learning. Around 70 percent of students receive free meals, based on their family income.

Johnson, in a message to families, said for the past months she and district leaders maintained they would remain flexible and respond as needed to fast-pace changes of the pandemic. 

"My job as superintendent is to look at all of the data from state and local health and government officials to make the best decision for our students and staff about the new school year," she said. 

One significant change Johnson oversaw in recent months, is the purchase of laptops, iPads and internet access for all students. Just before the pandemic began, IPS was not considering a one-to-one device policy. 

Student sports will also be "paused" during until Aug. 17. Compensation for teachers and other staff will not be impacted by the delay, Johnson said. 

"The decision to delay the opening of school by two weeks gives our community more time to ensure we are turning the tide on the number of positive COVID-19 cases and confirm we are doing the right thing," Johnson said.

“What an extremely complex decision this is. There is no right and wrong,"  said board commissioner Diane Arnold. "There are pluses and minuses for every consideration.”

The district's 19 innovation schools can choose to follow the IPS board's decision to delay opening or operate on a different schedule and instruction plan.

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

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