By Casey Smith
Source: AP News
Amy Donkersloot and her masked kindergarten class complete a worksheet Friday, Aug. 28, 2020, at St. Stanislaus School in Michigan City, Ind. This was the first week of school for many parochial school students in Michigan City. (Kelley Smith/The News Dispatch via AP)
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — One month after Indiana schools reopened their doors for in-person classes, state officials are releasing new recommendations for school operations and potential closures during the coronavirus pandemic.
The color-coded system, expected to go live Wednesday, assigns scores to counties based on three key metrics: the number of new cases per 100,000 residents, positivity percentage and change in percent positivity from the previous week.
Those scores then coordinate with a color-coded rating system for the county’s level of community spread and risk. It was not immediately known how often the scores would be updated.
A blue color designation indicates minimal community spread. Schools can operate in person for all grades but limit activities where social distancing isn’t feasible.
Yellow indicates moderate community spread of the virus. In this stage, the state suggests schools increase vigilance around mask-wearing, social distancing and hand-washing and consider limiting attendance at athletic events to parents and close family.
A county in orange is experiencing moderate to high community spread, State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said. In this case, grade schools are recommended to continue in-person instruction, and a hybrid approach should be considered for middle and high school students.
In red counties, the state suggests middle and high schools move to virtual learning and cancel all assemblies and extra-curricular activities.
Still, the new system provides only recommendations, not mandates, meaning public and private schools can choose not to follow them. Districts are not required to test to test students, teachers or school staff, and there are no penalties for schools that don’t comply with the state’s rating system.
Box said schools in all but the hardest hit counties should remain open for at least some level of in-person instruction. School districts should also “make every effort” to keep at least one school building open — regardless of infection rate — to assist students with remote learning and ensure a safe environment, Box continued.
Aside from a face coverings mandate for students in third grade and up, Indiana officials have so far held back on any state requirements for if or how schools should open. Box and Gov. Eric Holcomb have maintained it’s up to to local leaders to craft and follow their own back-to-school plans. They’ve also continued to encourage districts to reopen for in-person instruction if at all possible.
School districts, teachers and families across Indiana have pleaded for the state to issue specific guidance based on COVID-19 infection rate thresholds since early in the summer. Indiana State Teachers Association Keith Gambill said members of his union believe the new statewide metrics are an “important step in the right direction,” but noted that some of the recommendations ”could be more stringent in counties with high community spread.”
Terry Spradlin, Executive Director of the Indiana School Boards Association, said the new rating system “is a necessary guide” that schools should turn to as COVID-19 infection rates fluctuate.
But ahead of the new system’s release, many local district leaders remain reticent.
In southwestern Indiana’s Daviess County — put in the “red” category under the state’s new rating parameters — Barr-Reeve Community Schools Superintendent Travis Madison said he’s “not sure if this new system will really help that much.” District leadership was already paying daily and hourly attention to coronavirus cases across the county and within schools, he continued, which was being used to inform decisions about school operations.
Neighboring Washington Community Schools Superintendent Daniel Roach said the “red” rating for Daviess County “was not presentative” of infection rates within school buildings. After the district conferred with the county health department, Roach said the decision was made not to close any schools.
Clemen Perez-Lloyd, interim superintendent at southern Indiana’s West Clark Community Schools, said she thinks decisions about schools opening or closing “should be made based on the impact in your local district and area.”
Countywide data might look different from what’s happening more locally, Perez-Lloyd said, adding that’s why her district’s schools have been coordinating with the county health department to make decisions regarding opening and closing schools.
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.