Indiana school closures remain optional as other states order students home

Editor’s note: Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office on Monday (March 16) reported that 273 of the state’s public school districts have closed or plan to close while still providing instruction through e-learning. The other 16 districts are working with the Department of Education to “determine their next steps and needs,” the office said.

Officials in at least 22 states—including all of Indiana’s neighbors—have closed schools statewide, with Minnesota, South Carolina, New Hampshire and Vermont taking action Sunday to try to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

And, in Ohio, one of the first states to order students to go home, Gov. Mike DeWine says it’s possible that schools may be closed for the rest of the academic year.

In Indiana, the decision about closing schools and moving classes online remains a local one—and one that public schools in most central Indiana counties have already made. Many are using e-learning days to provide some instruction during that time.

But, so far, Gov. Eric Holcomb has declined to order all schools to close. Instead, he announced last week that districts can close for up to 20 days without having to make up lost classroom time.

His spokeswoman, Rachel Hoffmeyer, said Sunday the governor’s decision to provide the waiver “follows CDC guidance, and the decision was made in conjunction with the health department, [Indiana Department of Education], and input from school superintendents.”

“The goal is to provide flexibility as districts may have individual needs,” Hoffmeyer said. “The outbreak continues to evolve and Gov. Holcomb continues to evaluate the situation.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick reported Sunday on Twitter that 218 traditional public school districts have announced they are closing and/or moving to e-learning.

That leaves roughly 70 districts that are remaining open.

“From the start, our guidance to schools has been to work with their local and state health departments on decisions to close that affect their local community,” McCormick’s spokesman, Adam Baker, said Sunday. “Any statewide decision mandating all schools close would come from the governor.”

Officials at the Indiana State Teachers Association—the state’s largest teachers union—supported Holcomb’s decision last week to give schools flexibility.

But, on Sunday, ISTA President Keith Gambill said the governor might need to take additional action.

“If school districts aren’t taking the initiative to close for a period of time, then he may have no choice,” Gambill said in a statement to IBJ. “At the end of the day, the safety and well-being of kids, educators and their families is of the utmost importance.”

Other states also are offering flexibility rather than ordering statewide closures.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little said Sunday that he would not order schools to close statewide. Instead, he told school leaders that the decision on whether to close to slow the spread of coronavirus should be made locally.

Little made the decision one day after state public health officials announced that the number of Idaho residents known to be infected with the virus had jumped to five, and a few hours after the state teacher’s union urged the governor to close schools for at least three weeks.

During a conference call with school leaders, Little said he knew it was a tough decision but one best made locally with the help of public health officials.

Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen, who also was on the call, said he would prefer that schools stay open, in part so health care workers with small children can continue to work as usual without disruption.

If Ohio’s DeWine is right, states will have time to reconsider their decisions.

The governor, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Nation” on Sunday morning, cited projections that the virus might not peak until the latter part of April or May and said “it would not surprise me at all if schools did not open again this year.”

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