INDIANAPOLIS — One school district in Marion County is postponing its plan to reopen as scheduled, as cases of COVID-19 continue to grow in central Indiana.
Students in Washington Township will not return to the classroom when school is back in session. The district announced Monday its decision to make all learning virtual until further notice. The new school year will still begin July 30.
"While several of the most significant numeric and statistical measures relating to the coronavirus continue to rise, and while we understand our continuing responsibility to address students' educational, social and emotional needs, it is the Board’s judgment that the best course of action in the near term is not to have students return to the classroom while coronavirus indicators increase," the board said in a statement.
The school board cited the recent increases in Indiana's coronavirus cases, children's ability to pass the virus to adults, and a particular risk to African-American families as reasons for the decision.
Washington Township joined other Marion County schools last month in promising the school year would start on time. Some school systems are giving students the option to do e-learning. Washington Township is the first district to announce all students would participate in e-learning.
School leaders acknowledge the decision to go online only was difficult.
But school board president John Fencl said with coronavirus cases rising, it's the best course of action for teachers, staff and its 11,000 students.
"Certainly the increase in cases, the increase specifically cases in Marion County was the driving factor," Fencl said. "Experts caution that students themselves may become infected and that even if they don't become seriously ill, they may pass the virus to adults with whom they reside. You get into a large group and that increases your risk and I think the perception was this is an unnecessary risk we have to take."
So when school begins later this month, classrooms in Washington Township will be empty. Student learning will be completely virtual and all sports and extracurricular activities are being suspended.
Fencl said exactly what that will look like, with schedules and curriculums, is being planned right now.
Parents like Stacy Lozier will go back to what they started in the spring, when districts had to suddenly go virtual.
"Every house that has kids in our school district, we're now a school," Lozier said.
But this time, she said, there's a decision upfront making it easier to plan and execute for families and teachers.
She originally wanted to send her son, a senior, back to class in person. That was what she filled out in the district's parent survey.
But Lozier said she fully understands and supports the district's decision.
"The health and wellness of everybody involved, not just students, but teachers, staff administrators, is paramount and as Marion County continues to see cases and increases, I think it's a smart call," Lozier said.
Crystal Paschal has a fourth and sixth grader in the Washington Township district. She also supports the board's decision for safety.
"It was a mixed reaction. My husband and I both work, so we had originally chosen to send the kids back," Paschal said. "I'm a little bit stressed about how distanced learning will work but also relieved. I've been concerned about the rising number of cases in the county and the state and the safety of the teachers and other staff members interacting with the kids every day."
She and her husband are now making plans to switch off days working from home to be there for their kids.
It's an option not every parent has in the district, which she says will be tough, and she sees other challenges.
"You know kids act differently for their parents than they do for their teachers and so, really trying to enforce for them, this is for real. This is going to count as part of your grade and you need to take it as seriously as if you were going back in person," Paschal said.
"I think my child needs to get up at school time and be 'in school' during a specific time," Lozier added. "I think schedule will be important to that."
Washington Township said food service and distribution will continue for those in need. Technology will go out to students, too.
Also, Fencl said hotspots will be set up for the 300 or so families without internet access.
The district plans to reevaluate this virtual learning plan at each board meeting and will let the numbers in the coronavirus crisis dictate when they can finally welcome kids back.
"Coronavirus and COVID-19 is a very fluid situation," Fencl said. "And so while we would love to issue a hard date, that said - and I'm making this up right now - let's say 'after Labor Day, we're all back in school.' Well I'm not sure that at Labor Day anything is going to be different from today. But it might be in three weeks from now if we see a significant decrease in ICU admissions or the death rate. Those will be criteria we consider."