Indiana school districts grapple with reopening decisions

July 13, 2020 GMT

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — As Indiana schools rush to release reopening plans for the upcoming academic year, one Indianapolis district has said it will only hold classes online, raising questions as to whether others will follow suit to protect students and staff from the coronavirus.

Washington Township, which is among the state’s largest school districts with about 11,000 students last school year, announced Monday it won’t reopen schools this fall. After approving plans last week to reopen with a brick-and-mortar option, the school board voted again Monday morning, this time moving all classes online.


“While several of the most significant numeric and statistical measures relating to the coronavirus continue to rise, and while we understand our continuing responsibility to address students’ educational, social and emotional needs, it is the Board’s judgment that the best course of action in the near term is not to have students return to the classroom while coronavirus indicators increase,” the school board said in a statement.

The district’s concerns are not unfounded. Last week, Indiana recorded back-to-back highs in single-day increases in coronavirus cases — the most since early May. The Indiana State Health Department announced that over 52,000 Hoosiers have been diagnosed with the virus, with more than 2,700 Hoosiers dead. And Marion County, which includes Washington Township, has reported more than 12,000 confirmed cases and nearly 700 deaths.

The district, which serves more than 11,000 students on Indianapolis’ north side, will reopen beginning July 30, according to the school board. The district said it will reassess whether students can return to the classroom at every upcoming board meeting — it has seven scheduled the fall semester. But until the school board determines otherwise, classes will remain online.

The announcement comes on the heels of threats by President Donald Trump to hold back federal money if school districts don’t bring their students back in the fall. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, too, said last week that anything less than a full reopening would be a failure for students and taxpayers.


“It’s clear that our nation’s schools must fully reopen and fully operate this school year,” DeVos said during a White House’s round-table July 7. “Anything short of that robs students, not to mention taxpayers, of their future.”

Last month, the Indiana Department of Education released recommendations for schools to use while developing reopening plans. The guidelines give local leaders the freedom to determine how their schools will operate during the pandemic, including whether classes will be offered in-person, online, or a mix of both. The Washington Township school board said it found itself in a “difficult position” due to the “limited specific guidance” from the state.

All other public school districts in Indianapolis are offering both in-person and online options. None others, so far, have announced changes to in-person reopening.

Other school leaders around the state are also beginning to announce their reentry plans, though uncertainty remains whether those plans will include options for students to enter physical classrooms.

The Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation in southern Indiana expects students to return to traditional learning environments Aug. 5. Northern Indiana school districts, including in South Bend and Mishawaka, plan to hold classes in school buildings beginning Aug. 12. And while masks will be required for students and teachers, in-person classes for Indianapolis Public Schools are slated start on Aug. 3.

Like dozens of others, Fort Wayne Community Schools — the largest public school district in the state — is still finalizing whether to bring students back with e-learning or to return to a traditional classroom setting. Fluctuating numbers of new coronavirus cases, school leaders say, could alter or delay current and developing reentry plans.


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.