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‘They want to be here.’ Indiana schools face ongoing challenges among COVID-19 surge

With school returning, COVID-19 cases in children are a concern
Posted at 4:58 PM, Jan 14, 2022

INDIANAPOLIS — As the state sees another surge of COVID-19 cases, schools across central Indiana continue to face challenges related to the pandemic.

On Monday, one week after schools returned from winter break, the Indiana Department of Health reported the largest number of new positive COVID-19 cases among students, with 6,562 testing positive.

Also this week, several districts moved some schools to remote learning due to COVID-19 cases, including Indianapolis Public Schools.

To help understand the challenges school districts in central Indiana are facing, WRTV emailed more than a hundred school officials this week.

Dr. Tania Grimes, the superintendent of Southeast Fountain School Corporation, has been an educator for more than 30 years.

She said the biggest challenge for her district is the time spent on contact tracing. Especially for the junior and senior high school, contact tracing can take extra time because there are a lot of places to check for close contacts.

"It's very, very time-consuming," Grimes said in an interview on Friday. "And when you have multiple students in a day, it can be a full-time job for someone on some days."

In addition to contact tracing, school administrators and nurses also have to document when students can come back, make sure they're asymptomatic when they do return, and that they don't try to participate in extracurricular activities.

Grimes says the goal is to keep students in the classroom because she believes they learn best in person.

"They want to be here," Grimes said. "They would prefer, what I hear and what I see both from students and families and everyone else, is we just want to be back to normal."

"We're all trying to keep each other safe and healthy while having as close as possible to a normal educational environment," Grimes continued.

While the district as a whole has not moved to e-learning this year, some students are having to do e-learning when they are in quarantine. Grimes said it's why they are making sure every student has a Chromebook.

But because the district is in a rural area of Fountain County, some students don't have access to WiFi to be able to continue learning. To help those students, Grimes said the district is providing mobile hotspots.

While the technology is helping students to continue part of their education, Grime said it's challenging for teachers to teach both in-person and remote groups.

Some classes are simply unable to continue online.

"For example, a student in our welding program, cannot be doing welding at home, through Google Classroom, you know, but a student in an English class may be able to follow along to a lesson and, and complete an assignment," she said. "So it's just it's very different depending on the class, the instructor and the student."

Another challenge the district faces is masking. While masks are optional inside school buildings, they are still required on school buses due to a federal mandate.

Grimes said kids often come to the bus stop in the morning without one.

"So your choice is to either deny them transportation to school, which we will not do, or provide them with a mask," she said. "Because sending them back into their house to get a mask, that delays transportation and the students at all subsequent bus stops are standing out at a stop, at this time of the year in very cold, very dark weather. And we don't want that. So we provide masks for those students as they get on the bus if they don't have them."

Even though she sends reminders to parents about the federal mandate, some students are still coming to bus stops without masks on a "regular basis." And some students are losing their masks during the day and need another one to get on the bus to go home.

"Literally, we order about 3,000 masks at a time, and I've had to put in more than one order this year," Grimes said.

The district has explored options like putting masks in plastic bags when students get off the bus.

"But that takes a lot of time and takes away from instructional time for those students on the bus as you're doing that. So we didn't feel that was a viable option. We're just replacing, replacing, replacing masks."

Grimes said the district's employees are doing whatever it takes to help students succeed.

"We don't have all the answers. And every day we learn something new. And we just address those challenges face on, so I would want everyone to know: Please have some grace and some understanding. And we know that you're frustrated, students and families, and we share those frustrations. But we're trying to do our very best to give our students the best education possible."

Inside other school districts

Many other school districts also responded to WRTV's inquiry to share their challenges.

At the Frontier School Corporation in White County, the school implemented a mask mandate at the elementary school after seeing a surge of COVID-19 cases after Thanksgiving. In an email to WRTV, Superintendent Dan Sichting said the district extended the mandate to the junior/senior high school for the start of the new semester.

"Frontier School Corporation has heard more from upset parents about the mask mandate with concerns about their son or daughter having to wear a mask than concerns about the safety of in-person learning," Sichting wrote.

Most districts that have responded to WRTV have said they aren't hearing a lot of safety concerns about students being in school.

"Our parents want in-person learning" Cowan Community Schools Superintendent Timothy Brown wrote. "They support us staying in school."

Other school districts, including the Monroe County Community School Corporation, are facing issues keeping up with contact tracing.

Bus driver shortages are impacting many districts, including Perry Township Schools.

At Beech Grove City Schools, the district is facing issues covering staff absences and is seeing three times the amount of absences per day compared to previous surges.

The MSD of Lawrence Township is facing challenges with the rising positivity rate in the community.

"We have continued to work together to ensure in-person learning for students," Dana Altemeyer, director of communications for the district, wrote in an email.

As WRTV continues to hear back from school administrators, this story will be updated.