State superintendent discusses pandemic’s impact on education as teachers associations call for more guidance

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INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana State Teachers Association is calling on the state government to do more to keep educators and students safe as Indiana continues to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

The ISTA is the largest teachers union in the state, representing nearly 40,000 educators. Last week, the association called for school buildings to only reopen if coronavirus cases are “under control” in the community.

“Some of our counties that are more rural may have a very low rate, and they may be prepared to go back completely face to face,” said ISTA President Keith Gambile. “Others, where it is a little bit mixed, then the hybrid approach. But then we do have areas in Indiana where it should be all virtual right now because the case rate is just too high.”

The organization also called for specific protections for students and staff to keep them safe from the virus, stating no educator should have to choose between their livelihood and their health or safety.

“Especially where the case rate is so high, and we have areas in the state where the case rate is high and is continuing to move in the wrong direction,” said Gambile. “Until we see the case rate low and declining, then that’s our indicator that we’re ready for a bigger group of people coming back together.”

That being said, the association believes guidance from the state would mean a benchmark all schools can follow as they reopen or are in the process of reopening. The association notes there are some districts who are struggling.

“What we do need is clear guidance from the state about what are the matrix that we should be looking at for a school district that they believe is safe to be open in face to face and what level of face to face,” explained Gambile. “Guidance from the state would be very helpful, and it would help ease the stress the educators and families are feeling about what is driving the decision making for returning to school.”

Many districts have been told to do what they believe is best for their schools and their community. Gambile says it’s working for some, but others could really benefit from guidance from the state, especially when it comes to inequities with e-learning.

“We have some areas that lack broadband, and they need that assistance. We have others where there are language barriers,” said Gambile. “In some cases, their inability to get to a device.”

Gambile also believes schools and the state should look at ways to reimagine the use of their school buildings.

“If a school district is returning completely to virtual learning, is there the possibility for some buildings to be open to assist with families in need, to help out — to be a real community partner in this,” said Gambile.

The Indiana chapter of the American Federation of Teachers said schools should reopen for in-person instruction only if teachers and school staff are provided with adequate personal protective equipment, funding is provided for necessary safety resources such as masks and cleaning products, and cases in the community are under control.

Indiana State Superintendent Dr. Jennifer McCormick held a virtual press conference Thursday morning to talk about the impact COVID-19 has had on education. 

She stressed school districts have a lot on their plate, and she’s heard from many teachers. She said some are anxious and not happy, but others are ready to get back in the classroom. She also said the state is noticing an uptick in teachers retiring due to the pandemic.

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