State officials pressured to set school-shutdown benchmarks

With at least 31 positive cases of the coronavirus reported in Indiana schools since buildings began reopening in late July, district leaders, teachers and parents are pressuring state officials to identify benchmarks for what would require schools to go back online as confirmed cases of the virus increase.

Decisions about handling positive cases and creating protocols for when schools need to revert to online-only learning now are left up to individual districts.

Aside from a face coverings mandate for students in third grade and up, Indiana has no state requirements for if or how schools should open. While the state issued recommendations for cleaning procedures and social distancing inside classrooms, it’s up to to local leaders to craft and follow their own back-to-school plans.

District leaders are now “adamant” that they want the state to identify when the spread of the virus has become too much for students to come into schools, state school superintendent Jennifer McCormick said.

Doing so means setting thresholds, she said. Each school should have a plan indicating that, when a certain percentage of people in the school or local population test positive for COVID-19, the school knows how to respond. That might mean taking extra days off for deep cleaning or moving the school entirely online for a period of time.

In the Indianapolis area, the Marion County Health Department”s guidelines indicate that schools can fully reopen and have all students in their buildings at once as long as the positivity rate in the county remains below 5%. When the county rate is 6% to 10%, middle schools and high schools must operate at half-capacity. A positivity rate of 11% to 12% forces middle and high schools to move completely online, and a rate of 13% or higher would cause all in-person instruction within schools to go on hold.

As schools continue to reopen, few districts have those numbers figured out yet.

In the Greenfield-Central Community School Corporation, where a student tested positive for the virus on the first day back to class, Superintendent Harold Olin said that the district east of Indianapolis does not have a specific threshold yet for when it would close a school, but that it would likely do so if absences reached 20%.

Still, making those decisions to close schools should be left up to medical experts, not the department of education, McCormick said.

That position puts her at odds with Gov. Eric Holcomb and Health Commissioner Kristina Box, who maintain there’s no reason for statewide benchmarks.

Holcomb has said that brick-and-mortar school reopenings are safe. On Wednesday, the Republican governor reemphasized “confidence” in local leaders to decide what’s best for their districts.

Box has said she “continue(s) to believe that our schools can safely reopen,” adding that having a case of COVID-19 at a school “should not be a cause for panic or a reason to close.” She’s so far denied that the state would mandate benchmarks for school closures.

But if schools don’t offer in-person option for students — even during the pandemic — they could see their budgets slashed.

Indiana’s Senate president, Republican Rod Bray, emphasized to school leaders in a letter sent Thursday that state law caps per-pupil funding for students who take at least half their classes virtually to 85% of basic tuition support.

That means school districts only offering online instruction to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19 could lose 15% of their basic per student funding, equivalent to losing $855 in funding per student. Bray has not clarified whether the funding cut would apply to schools operating online for only part of the school year, or to schools that want to open but aren’t able to because of mandates from their county health departments.

Senate Democrats criticized Bray’s proposal. “This is an especially unfair burden to place on local school officials in light of the lack of clear, uniform standards on reopening schools from either state or federal officials,” Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, said in a statement Friday. “Until now, local districts have been left to make their own determinations as to what is best for the health and safety of students and staff. Now, after these difficult choices have already been made, they are essentially being told, ‘unless you offer an option for in-person instruction, no matter how dangerous you might think it is, or how unprepared you may be, you will suffer financially.’”

Already, at least 31 districts, including Indianapolis Public Schools, plan to start their school years online, McCormick said. The state superintendent is calling on Holcomb to hold a special legislative session to “honor the promise he made to Hoosier children to provide sustainable funding to K-12 schools.”

Holcomb and other state leaders promised the opposite in June, maintaining that public schools would remain fully funded regardless of whether students are attending class in-person or online. In a statement to The Associated Press sent Friday evening, Holcomb said his position had not changed on school funding.

“As I’ve said before, I am committed to providing 100 percent funding to schools as they navigate the unprecedented challenges of opening the academic year during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Holcomb said. “They all need our support now more than ever.”

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