State leaders say Indiana schools can reopen safely in the fall if they screen students and staff, create individual health plans, and maintain social distancing, according to newly released re-entry guidelines.
State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick released the list of considerations for school districts Friday morning — placing Indiana among the first states to start outlining its plans for the fall.
“This is a fluid document as there are few certainties in this uncertain time,” McCormick said in a tweet Friday morning “Our priority is the health [and] safety of all involved. Our goal is continuous learning, including a return to brick [and] mortar.”
The 38-page document includes guidance for operating schools after weeks of closure due to the coronavirus. Buildings will be allowed to open after July 1, although it says school leaders should “constantly evaluate” their ability to maintain a healthy environment and monitor for COVID-19 outbreaks.
Specific guidance is included for health, meals, special education, communications, and transportation protocols. It also includes a three-phase plan for returning to extra-curricular activities that would allow them to resume if schools follow a long list of suggested protocols on Aug. 15.
The checklist for school leaders includes considering tweaking their school calendars, reviewing their inventory of cleaning supplies, creating student and staff health plans, and preparing to meet social distancing expectations. The state offers several options that schools could consider in order to allow for social distancing:
- Provide in-person instruction to elementary students and increase distance learning opportunities for secondary grade levels.
- Schedule specified groups of students to attend in-person school on alternate days or half days to minimize the number of students in the building.
- Change to a year-round calendar.
- Move classes outdoors whenever possible.
- Discourage the use of attendance awards.
- Use assigned seating and track who enters the building so potential exposure can be more easily traced by the health department.
A student or staff member should be restricted from going to school if they have symptoms, including a fever or cough, according to the document. At a minimum, it recommends asking families to self-screen before coming to school.
The guidance comes a month sooner than Gov. Eric Holcomb originally planned, following pushback from McCormick and educators who said schools needed direction earlier. Most districts are set to start school at the beginning of August, which leaves them little time to prepare.
Reopening schools is one of the final steps in Holcomb’s plan to lift coronavirus restrictions based on the availability of hospital beds and ventilators. But it’s unclear whether students, parents, and teachers will feel safe returning to the classroom amid the pandemic. As of Thursday, Indiana had more than 36,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, according to the State Department of Health. More than 2,000 people have died.
Ultimately, it will be up to individual districts to decide how they will reopen, although they are being asked to work with local health departments. District leaders have started preparing for multiple options, including offering a hybrid approach with some online and some in-person classes. The guidance does not recommend one reopening scenario over another.
The document was put together in part by an advisory group made up of school officials from rural, urban, and suburban areas. The group was convened by the Indiana Department of Education in April.
Indiana’s guidance expands on interim federal guidance for schools, released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC recommendations say schools should promote healthy hygiene practices such as washing hands, intensifying cleaning, and promoting social distancing.
The CDC recommends canceling field trips, serving meals in classrooms rather than a cafeteria, and staggering students’ arrival, among other measures.
Colorado released similar guidance last month for how to reopen schools, laying out required safety precautions such as having staff wear face masks and limiting classes to no more than 10 people. And Illinois announced Thursday that its schools can hold in-person summer school, if groups are limited to 10 people along with other precautions. In the 30-page document, Illinois state leaders also said schools should check symptoms and temperatures before someone enters the building.
Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious disease, said earlier this week that it was “a bit of a reach” to say school should remain closed when precautions can be taken to allow them to open, The Washington Post reported. His comment comes after Israel closed dozens of schools and quarantined thousands of students and teachers earlier this week after a COVID-19 outbreak swept through the reopened buildings.
School leaders nationwide have raised concerns about the potentially costly changes to classrooms and what they could mean for transportation in particular, since it could be difficult to separate students on a bus.
Getting students — especially younger students — to stick to social distancing rules could be a challenge, Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Aleesia Johnson acknowledged prior to Friday’s release. The district released a list of factors they will consider for reopening last week, including offering a full-time e-learning option for students who aren’t comfortable returning and a plan in case the district needs to close buildings again.
“The only way you’re able to do it is if you have some students who are attending some days and some students who are not,” Johnson said at the time.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.