Originally published July 14 in TheStatehouseFile.com
As schools prepare to reopen in the coming weeks, superintendents across Indiana have prepared for multiple scenarios that may happen from opening during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
From having to shut down schools and move to distance learning in March to now planning a return to school during a pandemic, Eva Merkel, superintendent of the Lakeland School Corporation in LaGrange County, said flexibility has been key to her district’s approach.
“We’re just trying to be flexible and patient and trying to meet the needs of our kids the best that we can,” Merkel said. “So, I’m sure whatever plans we put in place will have to be changed.”
Most schools in the state have decided to allow students to attend school on the normal start dates. But they are also giving parents the option to keep their students home, learning remotely, if the student or someone in the household is put at risk by being infected with the virus.
Merkel said that parents completed a survey at the end of the school year saying whether they would be comfortable with sending their children back to school this fall. At that time, about 60% of families said their children would return to school.
Lakeland Schools will start Aug. 12, after the educators have several days to prepare.
Indianapolis Public Schools, or IPS — the largest school district in the state — also did a survey with parents and found that at the time of the survey, about one-third of students would do virtual learning if it was offered.
Parents of students in IPS have until Friday to decide whether to send their children back to school full-time Aug. 3 or have them do virtual learning full-time. Parents who select the virtual learning option will not be able to switch to in-person learning until spring 2021.
Problems And Precautions
When the state started closing all schools and nonessential businesses in late March, schools had to hurriedly put together plans for remote learning that would work for more than a month.
Merkel said Lakeland Schools had already been doing e-learning for years to cope with weather-related school closings, but they were only used to doing it for short periods of time.
Having to do remote learning for an extended amount of time made things more difficult. Rather than online learning, the district opted for sending schoolwork through the U.S. Postal Service because many families either didn’t have internet access or could no longer afford it due to loss of employment as a result of the pandemic.
Crown Point Community School Corporation in Lake County faced a similar challenge, Interim Superintendent Tony Lux said. Lux also said there was concern online learning couldn’t replace in-person classes.
While Merkel’s goal is to get students back in the classroom safely, she understands that not all of them will be able to do that just yet.
“The best opportunity for learning for students is face-to-face in a classroom,” Merkel said. “And so, we really want to get to that point, but we’re also trying to be sensitive of some students who have to be isolated and can’t come to school yet and be ready for that because we will probably have more people with cases.”
LaGrange County was a COVID-19 hotspot at some points during the summer, a reality Merkel hoped would make families understand they can’t let their guard down now.
Since Crown Point Schools start in six weeks, Lux said he is concerned about students’ activities before then. Many youth activities, like sports and day camps at the YMCA, have started up again, and Lux is worried about what all of this interaction among students will mean when school starts.
IPS will be making multiple changes to their schools’ daily operation. All students and staff will be required to wear masks at school and on the bus. One reusable mask will be provided to everyone, and the district will have 200,000 backup masks.
Space will have to be made to accommodate social distancing guidelines in buildings. This will include students eating lunch in classrooms, some hallways being designated as one-way only and staggering bell schedules.
IPS will also hire 18 more crossing guards so kids can walk to school, reducing the number of students riding buses, and install at least 80 touchless water fountains.
Since Crown Point Schools officials were worried about the learning lag caused in the spring, Lux said his team will take extra precautions to make sure students have the option to learn in-person this fall.
“We are encouraging students and parents to have their students back in school, cooperating with the safety precautions,” Lux said.
The schools will have sanitary protocols in place, including daily hand sanitizing requirements as students move to different classrooms.
The biggest safety precaution the district is taking is the use of masks. Every student in every grade level will have to wear a face covering throughout the whole school day — from when they get on the bus to when they go home at the end of the day.
Students can, however, take off their masks while the teacher is lecturing, since desks will be spaced out and facing the same way. Students will also not be required to wear face coverings during recess outside, unless they want to group together in close contact.
Lux said the district did a survey with parents, and the results were split with half of the parents wanting masks and the other half not wanting them at all.
“It’s going to take a lot of cooperation from students and from parents,” Lux said. “If we can find a balance of getting students to understand when they’re moving around in large groups or when they’re in close proximity to each other, that they understand the need for masks.”
Lakeland Schools will also require all students and staff to wear masks throughout the school day, especially since LaGrange County already mandates mask-wearing in public.
Merkel said they will also use a fingerprint scanning system in place of students typing in their lunch numbers or swiping cards. Students will sanitize their finger and then scan it to get their lunch.
Costs Of Reopening
Both Merkel and Lux said their districts will be applying for the competitive remote learning grant Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced last month.
School districts can apply for part of this $61.6 million grant to improve remote learning by buying more devices for students, for example, or by getting internet connectivity to more families. The grants can also pay for professional development to help educators learn more about teaching remotely.
Since all students in Lakeland Schools have devices, Merkel said the district would use the money to provide internet access to families who need it.
Lux said Crown Point Schools will most likely use the money to provide additional technology to families, plan more professional development and training for educators and explore new strategies for distance learning, including programs that allow for more live interaction between the school and the home environment.
On the other hand, IPS’s whole reopening plan will cost the district at least $15 million, the same amount that has already been spent in response to the pandemic. About 80% of that initial spending purchased devices for students.
While the cost of reopening for the Lakeland School Corporation isn’t nearly as high as IPS, Merkel said it will be more than the $300,000 budget that the state gave them from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act.
Merkel said the largest cost came from expanding the wireless internet connections in each of their buildings so students can connect from the outside. They are also looking to purchase internet hubs that they can lease to families who need them.
“Internet is now a necessity, as opposed to a luxury,” Merkel said.
Hope Shrum is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.