A coalition of parents is pushing back on Marion County’s recent public health order that will close schools to in-person instruction for about eight weeks because of a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Department of Public Health, announced Nov. 12 that the latest public health order would close all schools in Marion County by Nov. 30 and that they would stay closed until at least Jan. 15, unless coronavirus case numbers improve dramatically.
The announcement sent parents scrambling to make arrangements for their children to learn from home for the next eight weeks.
Cases in Marion County and the state had been rising for weeks before Caine moved to close schools. In October, she warned residents that more restrictions would be necessary if the county’s seven-day positivity rate for all COVID-19 tests increased to more than 10%. And then it did. As of Monday, it was 12.6%, down from 13.7% on Nov. 13.
When she announced that schools would have to move to virtual instruction, Caine said spread of COVID-19 in schools had been minimal. It appears students and staff who test positive are contracting the virus from activities occurring outside of the school building, she said.
Parents say data shows that school is not the primary place where COVID-19 is spreading, and they wonder why buildings have to be closed, especially when bars and restaurants in the county are allowed to remain open.
Leigh Ann Lauth O’Neill, a mother to three elementary-aged students at Park Tudor, told IBJ that she and six other parents with children in public and private schools in Marion County met on Zoom a few days after the school announcement was made to discuss the closure and what they could do about it.
They launched Indy Schools Matter, an organization opposed to the public health order requiring schools to shift to virtual instruction.
A few days later, they started a Change.org petition asking the mayor and Caine to rescind the order, at least for elementary schools. They encouraged parents throughout the county—regardless of where their children attend school—to sign it.
As of Monday evening, nearly 600 people had signed the petition, which was posted Thursday and asks Hogsett and Caine to give local school districts, boards and school leaders “the autonomy to reopen for in-person learning should they deem it safe.”
“(The order’s) blanket closure of schools in an attempt to control COVID-19 stands in stark contrast to the fact that drinking at bars, going to gyms, gathering 25 friends indoors, and in-person dining is still permitted,” the petition reads. “The quality of our children’s education—as well as their safety, nutritional, and emotional needs—is being sacrificed in order to create the appearance that efforts are being made to stop the rising number of infections in Marion County.”
The order also takes issue with the city’s expressed intent to be the sole host for the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournaments in March and April.
“School children and parents are being asked to sacrifice while the city actively seeks opportunities to attract potential super-spreading events like basketball tournaments,” the petition reads. “The continued efforts and focus of our city to bring in tourists for large sporting events like the NCAA college basketball tournament, while consulting health care professionals to advise on safe ways to conduct them, highlight the misplaced priorities of Section 32. If guidance from health care experts is to be sought, that guidance should be focused first on how to keep our teachers and children safe in schools.”
O’Neill said the group believes there are serious constitutional questions raised by the order since education is a fundamental right in Indiana.
So far, schools have done a good job implementing COVID-19 protocols to keep students safe, she said. The group believes school leaders are best positioned to make decisions about whether the schools should remain open.
“It is just so upsetting for parents,” she said. “The detrimental impact it will have and has had on students is almost unfathomable. To think so many other areas are allowed to go on with business as usual with our children’s education sacrificed is intolerable.”
Other parents in the county have expressed similar opinions.
Parents at Holy Cross Lutheran School, which has about 350 students in prekindergarten through 8th grade, have encouraged each other to contact Dr. Virginia Caine to urge her to reconsider the mandate.
Aaron Watters, a local pediatrician and father to children at Holy Cross Lutheran School, said public health records show children are less affected by COVID-19 than adults. The spread among students from kindergarten to fifth or sixth grade seems to be minimal and children who do contract it tend to have mild symptoms, he said.
Indiana Department of Health statistics show that fewer than 20% of the COVID-19 cases experienced by students statewide involve children 9 years old or younger. Almost 37% of the cases have been in students ages 10-14 and almost 44% have been in students ages 15-19
With that in mind, he said he feels his children are safe at school, especially given the lengths Holy Cross has gone to avoid outbreaks, including setting up tents outside to keep students socially distanced while they learn.
Closing schools is a burden for families, he said, especially in single-parent homes or in those where both parents work.
Laura Hollenbeck, a pediatrician who is part of a committee at Holy Cross advising the school on COVID-19 protocols, said schools are well informed about spread within their buildings and should be able to decide whether it’s safe for students to be there.
She said she’d like there to be some type of waiver individual schools can apply for to allow in-person instruction to continue.
She also said she’s worried about the “huge” emotional and social impacts another closure could have on students and the impact virtual learning has had on her patients.
The county health department did not answer questions about whether it was receiving complaints from parents or if it would consider a waiver allowing schools to remain open on a case-by-case basis.
“Restrictions for Marion County schools remain in place per the current public health order as Dr. Caine continually reviews local COVID-19 data and keeps an open line of communication with public and private school administrators,” the department said in an email to IBJ.
Heidi Grant, communications director for the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, said the organization hopes schools can return to in-person instruction following the holidays and that future decisions to close schools will be made on a school-by-school basis for a “more focused response to controlling spread.”
“Schools have been meticulous with mitigation strategies, which have kept positive COVID cases to a minimum,” she said. “With many non-public schools being relatively smaller than their public school counterparts, mitigation has been somewhat easier.”
Indiana does not break out its pandemic information on a county-by-county basis, although information is available for most individual schools.
The state on Monday issued its weekly COVID-19 data for schools. The health department reported 2,240 new student cases, 495 new teacher cases and 575 new staff cases. The additional cases were newly reported over the past week, but some date back as far as late September.
Cumulative COVID-19 totals for schools show 10,451 student cases, 2,178 teacher cases and 2,537 staff cases.
The state said more than 1,755 schools have reported one or more cases, 220 schools have reported zero cases and 391 schools have provided no data.