Marion County parents question school closures, urge county to reconsider

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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 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.

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27 thoughts on “Marion County parents question school closures, urge county to reconsider

  1. If parents would make better decisions, we would not have these spikes. Continue to visit grandma, have your birthday parties and hang out at bars. Those of us that are “suffering” and doing the right thing, for the better of the community, are the ones paying the price for those in their own selfish worlds. Stay home so we can all come out to play soon.

    This is why we can’t have nice things…

    1. Or we could accept disease as part of life and all just go back to living. How about I make my decisions and if they scare you, you can stay home.

    2. Nicholas – you sir are part of the problem. The disease will always be part of our life, but we should all be living with caution until it is under control, a vaccine is widely available and a protocol is in place. I’m not scare, I care for my community, my family, my business and my health. You and those that think this way are the reason we need shut downs.

      Again, This is why we can’t have nice things…

    3. No. The problem is that people panic and overreact because the disease is “new”. I’m guessing you’re just fine living with the 80k who died of the flu last year. Or the 80k who died in cars. Diseases exist. People die. It’s sad, but panicking and locking the country down with arbitrary measures is the problem, not continuing to live life.

  2. It’s a seasonal virus at this point. Spikes have nothing to do with what someone “did” or “did not do”…stop the fear mongering. Indy schools can operate safely…but Dr Virginia Caine chooses to ignore the facts. Time for her to go.

    1. Seasonal virus? Tell that to families that have lost loved ones or those fighting for their lives with the virus. Seasonal is not 10 months.

  3. All I read in this article is a bunch of privileged and wealthy Karens who send their children to five-figure per year private schools complaining because they can’t potentially expose their children to a deadly virus (or spread it to teachers, staff, community members, ect, who they conveniently forget in their argument to keep schools open). Note to anyone who agree with these Karens, it’s not just about their/your kids. The order to shut down schools is about protecting the community and those who are more vulnerable and have less resources than the wealthy Karens and Kevins who send their kids to private school and are, generally, very well off. Oh, and by the way, our hospitals are overflowing, which they also, conveniently forget. If you want bars and restaurants to close along with schools, maybe start to advocate for more stimulus and reasonable leadership at the federal level for EVERYONE and not just keeping your kids in schools so you can go to brunch. Individualism will only make this virus worse.

    1. It’s a virus. Viruses exist and make people sick. Why have you never cared about the tens of thousands who die of influenza every year?

    2. There’s certainly a group of Karens but it isn’t the people who are going about their lives….

    3. Jordan – by your overyly-cliched “Karen” and “Kevin” slams, you are definitely showing yourself to be as mature as the children that a ton of us are fighting to get back in school. No matter whether it is a public shcool or “five-figure” private school, in-person education is extremely important for all kids, especially for younger elementary school aged children. Do you even have any clue that these private schools you clearly hate so much have lots and lots of kids who attend for free or reduced tuition? Do you know that many of these kids have their only healthy and full meal of the day when attending school, whether it is public or private? As the article pointed out, most schools are operating very safely and are not the source of the spread. This is purely a political move by our terrible liberal leadership in Indianapolis and Marion County to continue the nationwide trend in left-leaning cities that the populace needs to bow down to our wise masters who know better than we do on how to take care of our children and families. Our school had 3 cases of COVID since it opened in August – 3 cases! Now we are shut down which is absolutely wrong. Kudos to these parents who are fighting for what is truly best for these kids. If you are a parent and aren’t comfortable sending your kid to school then DON’T – there are e-learning options in place for those kids. Otherwise, the schools and the parents should be dictating whether in-person education is the right move.

      By the way, my friends and I ironically have a name for whiney know-it-all millenials. Its Jordan.

    4. I’m not arguing with anyone’s opinion on this issue. I would note though that Holy Cross Lutheran School is referenced in the article, and that is far from a “five-figure” per year school.

  4. This issue isn’t JUST that “kids might get sick” — and the argument can’t be ripped from the pages of Monty Python (“I got bettah!”) … the issue is staffing. Teachers & staff members are getting sick. Some are VERY sick. There aren’t enough teachers to cover classes.

    1. You state this but our school has yet to have a single teacher or staff member out due to COVID since we opened in August. I have a hard time believing your fear-mongering statement.

    2. Question for Michael. Since I’ve never seen someone get shot, that means people don’t get shot right? All those news stories about homicides are fake news and fear mongering reports!

    3. Michael – where are you getting your information. What school are you referring to? FYI a staff member at HSE just passed away with another fighting for their life.

      By the way, I am advocating for schools to stay open, but its the communities fight to move about as they please that are preventing this.

    4. David – I don’t need to share the name of our school to prove it to you. The fact is that our school has done an excellent job re: the virus and shouldn’t be penalized for others that aren’t doing a good job, nor should they be part of a blanket political decision. Holcomb makes an announcement one day about lifting or enacting stricter statewide mandates, useless Hogsett and the Marion County leadership just react the next day with a more severe interpretation – strictly political. Our school can do just fine without the damn politics.

    5. Michael – congratulations. Things went well at my children’s school system, but now I get e-mails just about every day from my children’s schools with COVID notifications – mostly students, occasional staff and teachers. There are nine children out in my son’s class of 23 students alone as they go virtual. Most cases are due to quarantine. And they’re down substitutes since many of the retirees who used to sub are sitting out this year as they’re high risk for the virus.

      I personally wish the kids would stay in school and we’d shut down the bars/restaurants and subsidize them until the spring when they re-open so I have a place to celebrate getting my second vaccine shot. But that’s not what we’ve chosen to do as a society, and the window to vote for different leadership doesn’t open for another 2 years.

  5. China stuck it to the planet. Either intentionally or unintentionally. I would to see some journalistic curiousity on that subject. Either way we have to live with it and move forward. Follow the science. Go to school.

    1. China has limited regulations now because they were on complete lockdown and now can be free again. Why couldn’t we do that?

    2. Everyone is always limited on what they can do in China. I don’t think locking people in their houses when they are sick is a feasible plan.
      And their numbers have to be WAY off.

    3. We also had scientists in China to monitor disease and act as a lookout… remind me, why did we pull them out during there Trump administration?

  6. Providing discretion to school systems and schools would allow the opportunity to provide in person instruction as the data allows. There are Marion County schools (public and private) that have tackled this issue – differentiating between grade schools and high schools, hybrid learning, etc. These schools want to stay open. Why does this have to be a bilateral decision – “open or closed”? This is a much more nuanced and complicated discussion

    Aaron Carroll – here at IU Medical School with a national following said it best in his op-ed piece:

    1. RS – completely agree. Not sure why the bilateral decision. A lot of closures now are due to lack of staffing.

  7. Ha! Its Wesley from the Indystar boards- I know you! You drink the Kool-Aid in California yet you like to troll Indy’s message boards pushing your weak, liberal agenda. Happy Thanksgiving, turkey!

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