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Despite State Recommendations, Local Remote Learning Differs

In Central Indiana, many schools already are on a hybrid schedule, while others are making moves to restrict the number of students in their buildings at any one time and some say they’re not there yet.

by Arika Herron and MJ Slaby, The Indianapolis Star / November 6, 2020
TNS

(TNS) — In 74 of Indiana’s 92 counties, state recommendations would have schools “strongly consider” moving to a hybrid schedule for their older students – if they’re not already operating that way – at a minimum, based on the coronavirus spread those communities are seeing.

In Central Indiana, many schools already are on a hybrid schedule, though. Of those that aren’t, some are making moves to restrict the number of students in their buildings at any one time and others say they’re not there yet.

The disconnect between school operations and state recommendations for them is driven largely, school officials have said, by the fact that the recommendations were released more than a month after school had started in most places. Schools came up with their own measures, some more restrictive than the state and others less so.

And because the state recommendations include no mandates for how schools operate, there’s been little consistency — even between neighboring districts — as cases of COVID-19 spike across the state.

Take Marion County and its 11 public school districts. The last of the districts to open for in-person instruction — Indianapolis Public Schools and Washington Township — did so just last month, well after state and county officials said schools could do so. Most, have been operating a hybrid schedule for middle and high school students at the instruction of the county health department, even as state recommendations would have allow for fulltime in-person instruction.

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Marion County’s health director  Virginia Caine  told schools they could move to fulltime in-person at the middle school level, which had been restricted at the county level, several weeks ago.

As case counts rose, though, Pike Township Schools – which had been operating middle school grades fulltime in-person – moved to a hybrid schedule last week.

At the same time,  Beech Grove Schools  moved from a hybrid schedule to fulltime in-person at middle school. After Marion County was moved into a higher risk category by the state this week, Superintendent  Paul Kaiser  said his district wouldn’t make any immediate changes but was monitoring data.

Johnson, like most counties in orange

State recommendations for school operations are based on the state’s color-coded system to rate the spread of the illness by county.

This week, three counties were in the “red” or highest rating category, noting high levels of community spread. In those cases, schools should consider online instruction for middle and high school grades.

Another 71 counties – including MarionHamiltonBoone and Johnson – were rated “orange,” for moderate to high levels of spread. Schools in those counties are encouraged to strongly consider a hybrid schedule for middle and high schools to reduce the number of students in a building at one time.

In Johnson County, at least one district is doing just that. Greenwood Community Schools will move to a hybrid schedule for middle and high school students next week.

“It was a painful decision,” said Superintendent  Kent DeKoninck  in an email to IndyStar.

DeKoninck said the district had been “very pleased to this point” that it’s been able to offer fulltime in-person instruction for all grades and operating as normally as possible through the pandemic. But when Johnson County moved to orange, he said it was a simple decision.

“It is a strong recommendation for middle and high school students to move to a hybrid learning format,” he said. “Then, in talking with our local health department, they concurred with the state recommendation.”

Elsewhere in Johnson County, schools are holding off on making immediate changes. Center Grove Schools are continuing to offer fulltime in-person instruction for all grades, but Superintendent  Richard Arkanoff  said the district will continue to monitor several data points.

Center Grove came up with its own thresholds for when it may move to a hybrid model, or completely virtual, based on the percentage of students who are absent due to COVID-related quarantine or isolation. More than 10% and the district may look to make operational changes, but right now that number is only about 2%, Arkanoff said.

An increase in the number of teachers or staff members out could also force changes, but so far the district hasn’t seen large increases in COVID-19 cases among its students, teachers or staff members.

“We believe the best thing we can do for students,” Arkanoff said, "is to have them in person as much as possible."

Few changes in Boone County

Boone County is also in the orange category for the first time. Last week, Zionsville Schools had said it would likely scale back in-person instruction should the county move into orange. But this week, Superintendent  Scott Robison  said in an email to families that there is little evidence that in-class spread is fueling the rise in cases so the district would continue to operate as it has been.

He asked families to continue limiting activities outside of school, where spread of the illness has more typically been seen. A move into the red category “would bring a very different kind of situation for our schools,” he said.

Elsewhere in Boone CountyWestern Boone Schools and Lebanon Community Schools are also sticking with their current schedules after consulting with the Boone County Health Department.

In Western Boone, students in all grades have a 100% in-person option.

In an email to families on Wednesday, Superintendent  Rob Ramey  said: “The decision to remain in school is based on a low number of positive cases (less than 1%) since August, and a low number of students currently quarantined.”

At Lebanon Community Schools, elementary students have a 100% in-person option and secondary students attending in-person are learning virtually on Mondays and attending class in school buildings from Tuesday through Friday. Secondary grades were scheduled to move to 100% in-person on Nov. 16, but will instead stay on their current schedule through the end of the first semester. That decision was a precautionary measure and due to the trend in county-wide data, Superintendent  Jon Milleman  wrote in an email to families Wednesday.

Already hybrid in Hamilton County

In Hamilton County, the four biggest districts —  Carmel Clay , Hamilton Southeastern, Noblesville and  Westfield Washington  — already have their secondary students on a hybrid schedule.

Westfield is scheduled to move grades five and six to an updated hybrid schedule — the same one that elementary students are on— of attending in-person Monday to Thursday and learning virtually on Fridays on Monday, Nov. 9. The district said they are still on track to do that.

However, Hamilton Heights and Sheridan, the two smaller districts in the county, have had a 100% in-person option for all students all school year. And it will stay that way, despite the orange designation.

“Because of our relatively small class sizes, we have not had to move to hybrid at the middle or high school, Sheridan Superintendent  Mary Roberson  said in an email. “With the change to orange, we are keeping all of our options open and continually monitoring the situation to do all we can to keep our students safe and well.”

Hamilton Heights will also keep its current schedule, however, the district did decide to move its high school to eLearning for two weeks on Monday, Nov. 2, which was before Hamilton County moved to orange. The move was due to the high number of potential close contacts after a few cases of COVID-19 were confirmed. Hamilton Heights High School will return to an in-person learning option on Nov. 16.

Across the state, schools have reported more 6,300 cases of COVID-19 to the state since the school year began. The state's dashboard, which is still missing more than 400 schools, does show a rise in school-related cases in the last several weeks but not at the same rate that cases are rising across the state.

Indiana has set records for number of new cases this week, reporting more than 4,700 new COVID-19 cases on Friday.

School leaders say they're keeping a close eye on cases in their schools and communities.

(c)2020 The Indianapolis Star. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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