MARION COUNTY, Ind. — Like 77 of Indiana’s 92 counties, Marion County remains in the “red” advisory level, according to the Indiana State Department of Health’s (ISDH) coronavirus dashboard.
Despite the current advisory level, some school districts are beginning to head back to in-person learning and many are following a phased-in approach, as recommended.
Initially Marion County was set to allow students and teachers back for in-person instruction beginning Jan. 15, but an amended public health order changed that to Jan. 4.
Recommendations were given by the Marion County Public Health Department to allow return to in-person learning as long as students and staff can be socially distanced, students and staff wear masks in 3rd grade and above, and parents, students, and teachers avoid any unnecessary contact outside of their household for 10 days prior to the Jan. 4 return.
However, districts like Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township and the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township opted to start after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
All three of those districts returned to in-person learning on Jan. 19, following guidelines and recommendations set forth by the Marion County Public Health Department, ISDH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
IPS returned to in-person learning for students in grades Pre-K-3 on Tuesday. Students in grades 4-12 remain on full remote learning.
The district is utilizing a phased-in approach, which allows for students in grades Pre-K-6, except for those on a middle school schedule, to return for full in-person learning beginning the week of Jan. 25. Additionally, students in grades 7-12 will be able to return for in-person learning on a hybrid schedule.
In a virtual message to students and families last Friday, Aleesia Johnson, Superintendent of IPS said, “While we are glad to invite our students back to school, I also want to remind our families to be sure your part to ensure we’re as safe as possible.”
In the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township, elementary school students returned on Jan. 19 for in-person learning, but middle and high school students will remain virtual until Friday, Feb. 12.
The district tells CBS4 as students and staff return, they have eliminated the use of face shields, unless approved for extenuating circumstances. They said additional staff are allocated to buildings to help assist with cleaning and COVID-related tasks.
A third district to return Tuesday, the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township, will continue to offer a full virtual learning environment for families who prefer it.
A spokesperson told CBS4 they are on a mixed model, which will allow for students in grades K-6 to have the option of a five-day on-site instructional model, and students in grades 7-12 the option of a hybrid model, where they are on-campus two days per week.
The district said students at the McKenzie Center for Innovation & Technology are required to report to designated programs to meet state certifications.
The Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township was also set to begin instruction this week on Jan. 20, but pushed back the date of in-person learning to Feb. 1.
“Unfortunately, two weeks ago we saw a spike that mirrored the community spread here amongst our staff that are working with our students,” said superintendent, Dr. Jeff Butts.
Butts said the district reported a record number of staff testing positive for COVID-19, with 30 confirmed cases, and the second highest number quarantined, with 160 total, the week of Jan. 4.
Of the 160 quarantined staffers, Butts said only 3 of those cases were a result of contact in the schools. An additional 25 students were also quarantined that week, according to the district.
“We made the decision to get beyond the holiday spread that we were seeing both with Christmas and from the New Years to get our staff healthy,” said Butts.
Butts said the goal is to bring students and staff back safely, along with those who perform critical services for staff.
“As we look at our data from last week, we are seeing really what’s being reflected in the most recent data with the health department with fewer numbers of positive cases and fewer quarantines,” he explained.
Butts said there are support structures in place to help students in the meantime.
“We’re hoping that trend continues and what we’re really trying to avoid is having our students move back and forth from virtual to in-person and back to virtual.”
Like other districts CBS4 spoke with, Butts said the cases they have seen have been mostly linked to community spread and they will continue to follow protocols and procedures in place that he said are working to limit spread and keep the school community safe.
“The problem is, we don’t live in our schools. We live out in our communities, we grocery shop, we do our normal activities,” said Butts. “Some people are making calculated decisions that they have to weigh out every time they do that and whether or not they’re gonna put themselves at risk and so we all do that, we go to the grocery store, we go work out, a gathering of some kind.”
“So, it is frustrating, but it is understandable that the spread is not happening inside the schools, but out in the community where we’re going about our daily lives,” Butts explained.
“We were disappointed when teachers were taken out of the next rounds of vaccination schedule, but we know that in due time everybody will have that opportunity and the more people we get vaccinated, the more we’ll be able to change some of the guidelines that we have and are operating under so we can get back to some post-pandemic normalcy.”
Like other districts, as long as the county remains in red, there will be limitations on gatherings and extracurricular activities.
He said the district is beginning to talk about ways they can provide an in-person experience for graduation 2021 and looking ahead to Feb. when students return.
“Every district really has to look at their unique individual circumstances. We all have COVID fatigue,” said Butts.
“COVID fatigue is real and we understand this with families who have their children at home, this is significantly impacting their lives and livelihood. When we make these decisions, we weigh that as well because we can tell the decisions we’re making are impacting not only staff and students, but also our family and community.”
All districts in Marion County were issued guidance on Jan. 7 by the Marion County Health Department, identifying ‘school positivity risk zones.’
You can read more on the new guidance issued by visiting the link here.