All classrooms in Indiana will remain closed through the end of the academic year, State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick announced Thursday, as the state scrambles to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
McCormick extended the statewide closure of school buildings, initially set to end May 1, after medical experts predicted Indiana will see a surge of COVID-19 cases in late April.
“We understand that sometimes the situation is a hardship on your family, and I certainly don’t want to minimize that,” McCormick said. “It’s going to take a collective effort to save lives and schools need to do their part.”
The extension was widely expected after Gov. Eric Holcomb said last month that it would be “a miracle” if students returned to classrooms this school year. Indiana’s decision comes hours after officials in Michigan called off its school year, becoming the first state in the Midwest to do so. Governors in nine other states have also ordered school closures through the summer.
“Let’s face it, some classrooms can be like petri dishes,” Holcomb said. “The last thing that we want to do is kid ourselves about our kids’ health and safety.”
Indiana’s 1.3 million school-aged children will miss around 10 weeks of in-person instruction — a disruption that further exacerbates concerns about their academic progress and growing gaps between students who have access to e-learning and those who don’t.
For the state’s 75,000 high school seniors, those who are on track to graduate will still be given a diploma, McCormick said, despite the closures cutting short some of their required classes. As long as seniors are currently enrolled in a class, it will count towards graduation, she said. And the state will waive required graduation exams.
For all other students, the state will require districts to submit a plan later this month for how they will continue their education through the end of the year. Schools will have to offer 160 days of instruction for the 2019-20 academic year — a reduction from the typical 180-day requirement.
If schools have not yet met the160-day threshold, they must hold 20 days of remote instruction before the end of the academic year, McCormick said. There are multiple ways the requirement can be met, including using online learning. But it remains to be seen how many districts will be able to provide meaningful lessons.
As of Monday, a survey of school districts and charter schools showed 91% of respondents were offering some kind of educational opportunity for students. That doesn’t necessarily mean those students are doing assignments and talking to teachers online.
Some districts are using paper packets of work or more generic lists of activities for students to complete on their own because students don’t have access to a computer, the internet or both. Those districts have, in recent weeks, struggled to meet the threshold for an instructional day.
A few districts have simply closed entirely and aren’t offering any services for students, McCormick said Thursday. The department is targeting those districts to offer help, but there is no “one-size-fits-all solution,” she said.
“Our goal, given this very difficult situation is to ensure that students have some type of continuous learning. It may not all be e-learning, but we are hopeful that we can offer some type of continuous learning to all of our kids,” McCormick said.
As for Indiana’s most vulnerable populations — including students with disabilities, those learning English, and homeless students — McCormick said the state is “very cognizant” that closures could worsen existing inequalities in their education.
“Our goal is to target as much as we can to those at-risk populations,” she said. “We understand the concern, but there is no magic answer to this.”
Standardized tests, including Indiana’s ILEARN, have already been canceled this year. Although buildings will remain shuttered, most schools will continue to provide some services, including meals for students.
The extended closure likely won’t have an immediate impact on teacher salaries, which are covered by local contracts. State officials previously said the current budget wouldn’t be amended, meaning schools won’t see funding changes this year as a result of the virus. Whether or not districts continue to pay hourly workers, such as bus drivers and food service employees, is a local decision, but many districts have said they will continue to pay these workers as if schools remained open.
On Thursday, the number of COVID-19 cases in Indiana rose to 3,039 — 474 more than the day before, according to the Indiana State Department of Health. Seventy-eight people in the state have died of the disease. Marion County alone has more than 1,300 coronavirus cases.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.