January 13, 2022

Indiana schools 'desperate' to stay open as staff COVID cases hit record highs

A student washes their hands at Sunnyside Elementary School in the Lawrence Township Schools district on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. - (Elizabeth Gabriel/WFYI)

A student washes their hands at Sunnyside Elementary School in the Lawrence Township Schools district on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.

(Elizabeth Gabriel/WFYI)

School districts across Indiana are reporting the highest number of staff and student COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, driven by the highly contagious omicron variant. Now at least four of 11 Marion County school districts are buckling under the weight of quarantines as staff absences force a return to remote learning.

School leaders have been determined this academic year to keep doors open, because students face learning loss and mental health challenges due to extended remote classes. But even without COVID challenges, Indiana school districts have struggled with the national teacher and substitute shortage as more than 700 staff positions are vacant across the state.

Laura Hammack, the superintendent of Beech Grove City Schools, said the district is “teetering towards desperate” as staff levels flux everyday due to infections and exposures.

“We're just doubling at least, if not more, the number of staff members that are showing up as testing positive, which has put a pretty significant strain on the ability for our schools to be able to continue in an in-person environment,” Hammack said. 

The unfilled educator positions have already led to an all-hands-on-deck situation. Now Hammack said keeping schools open is even harder as teachers call in sick due to COVID-19.

“But that is our absolute goal — to really try to deliver in-person instruction before we would even consider moving to another option,” Hammack said.

According to the Indidna Department of Health, there were 686 new teacher cases and 884 new staff cases reported on Jan. 10.

At some districts, school administrators have scrambled to fill-in at schools that are struggling with staffing constraints — whether that means superintendents are teaching classes or senior administrators are helping out in cafeterias.

Hammack said if too many staff absences prevent the school from operating safely, the district would do its best not to cancel in-person learning for the entire district. Instead, they would only switch to virtual learning for individual schools that can’t safely stay open.

But she’s also worried about the long-term effects of the stress teachers are enduring as they juggle their normal responsibilities in addition to covering other teachers’ classes during their planning periods.

Some districts have reached a breaking point with low staffing levels. Pike Township students have learned remotely for more than seven days due to a lack of bus drivers and staff.

Ben Davis High School students in the Wayne Township Schools district and eight schools in the Indianapolis Public Schools district will switch to remote learning Thursday and Friday.

Across the city, Warren Township’s 5th-12th graders have also learned remotely for more than a week. Superintendent Tim Hanson is desperate to keep the youngest students in the classroom.

“We feel that our K-4 kids are our most vulnerable,” Hanson said. “They’re not able to login at home where our 5-12 kids are more capable of doing that. So it’s been kind of a goal as much as possible to keep our K-4 students in-person. And right now that’s still a struggle.”

Hanson hopes to provide an update about in-person learning by Sunday.

Shifting COVID-19 quarantine policies

Over the past few months, many districts have implemented and adjusted health protocols to safely keep students in school. This includes enforcing mask mandates, social distancing requirements and establishing learning pods within a classroom to limit contact with other students.

But there’s only so much more schools can do after more than a year of fine-tuning health and safety practices.

Both Beech Grove and IPS have cracked down on social distancing by not allowing staff faculty meetings to occur in-person. IPS has also discouraged staff from participating in social gatherings inside or outside of school buildings, and has continued to stress the importance of wearing a high-quality mask.

IPS has also paused sporting events through Feb. 4 for K-8 students.  

On the northeast side of Indianapolis, Lawrence Township officials say they have done all they can in the classroom to slow the spread of COVID-19. District nursing coordinator Amanda Pardue has even called the local health department to see if there are any other safety measures they could put in place.

"‘I'm like, ‘Hey, our numbers are getting a little bit higher. Is there anything else we could be doing?’ Honestly, they don't really have anything else that we should be doing,” Pardue said. “There’s not too much else as a school district we can do.”

To help keep people in schools, districts across the state have recently shifted their quarantine policy to align with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state guidance, which reduced the days needed for being out of school. Students and staff only have to stay at home for five days after COVID-19 exposure or infection. Then they have to wear a mask for another five days if their school doesn’t have a mask mandate.

Pardue said many Lawrence Township students have been exposed because they were around someone at home who tested positive. Now this guidance helps students return to school sooner if they don’t have symptoms.

“In early pandemic we were sending a lot of kids home on quarantine,” Pardue said. “And so we had a giant number of students at home. And a lot of those kids weren't coming up sick. Now, I know that we're in a new variant and we're dealing with that, and so it's a little bit more contagious. But the kids we send home from school, still, not a large number of them are actually coming up sick.”

Lawrence Township sixth grade teacher Brandie Valdez said educators are doing everything they can to keep students in the classroom.

“We are very diligent about, ‘That mask needs to be on,’” Valdez said. “And we're not licking things, touching things. Wash your hands. So yeah, and it's hard because they have been isolated for so long. So coming back into that, you know, you want to be like right next to your best friend. But we have to recognize like, we still need to take some precautions.”

Nearly two years into the pandemic, Lawrence Township sixth grader Gabrielle said she’s tired of wearing a face mask because it muffles people’s voices and breaks easily. But she’s willing to put up with it if it means she can continue to learn in-person.

“It hasn’t been that hard but when you are definitely quarantined, it is hard to learn things,” Gabrielle said. “Like especially if it's something new or like a test. Then it's like hard because you can't really communicate with your teacher unless it's over email.”

For now, Gabrielle will keep following health guidelines and hope her school remains open.

Contact WFYI education reporter Elizabeth Gabriel at egabriel@wfyi.org. Follow on Twitter: @_elizabethgabs.

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