Indianapolis middle and high school buildings may operate at no more than 50% capacity in an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, under a public health order announced Thursday by the Marion County Health Department.
Elementary schools, however, will be able to fully reopen for all students to return to classrooms five days a week. The public health order also calls for all students in third grade and above to wear masks, permanent seating charts, and staggered passing periods. Marion County Public Health Department Director Virginia Caine also recommended that high-risk teachers and students be allowed to opt out of in-person instruction.
Many schools around the country are prioritizing bringing elementary school students back to classrooms because they appear to be less likely to become infected or spread the virus. Middle and high schools will likely have to use a hybrid model or offer virtual learning to meet the restrictions.
The order is based on new metrics from the health department that specify what level of school reopening is considered safe based on the COVID-19 test positivity rate in the community. Marion County had a seven-day average positivity rate of 9.2% as of Sunday. It is considered “yellow” under the new system, the first level triggering restrictions on schools.
Under the four-level system, which ranges between green, yellow, orange and red, the positivity rate must drop below 5% for schools to operate with no restrictions on in-person learning. If the county reaches a positivity rate of 13% or higher, schools should not offer in-person instruction.
Restrictions will remain in place for at least two weeks.
“Our hope is that these benchmarks will give school boards, superintendents, principals, other school leaders, the tools necessary to make decisions about how to best serve their students based on current and known public health trends,” said Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett at a press briefing.
The new guidance comes after several Marion County districts have already pushed back the start of school or opted to begin the year virtually because of health concerns. An order issued last week delayed building reopenings until Aug. 5. Indianapolis Public Schools announced plans Wednesday to begin the year entirely virtually.
In a sign that many schools are being more cautious than the county requires, IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson also proposed guidelines for determining when it would be safe to return to classrooms. Johnson said that the district would look for the community to go for 14 days with an average positivity rate of 5% or less before returning in-person.
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