Indianapolis schools scramble to plan education and get food to students after closing for coronavirus

Indianapolis Public Schools is rushing to plan for how to educate more than 25,000 students — and get food to many low-income families who typically depend on free breakfast and lunch — after Marion County officials closed all public schools to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The state’s largest school district is closed Friday and is not requiring students or teachers to work from home. It is using one of the 20 missed days that schools will be allowed to waive under new guidance Gov. Eric Holcomb released Thursday.

Marion County schools will remain closed through at least April 6. Indianapolis Public Schools was already scheduled to take spring break for two of those weeks. District officials are still working to decide whether to use remote learning next week, said Superintendent Aleesia Johnson at a press briefing Friday morning. In a video posted later that day, she said the district is working to provide “a hybrid of educational activities and materials” to support home-based learning.

All employees will be paid their regular pay for work that’s missed as a result of the closure. That’s especially important for hourly workers such as bus drivers and food service workers who cannot sustain an unexpected loss of wages, Johnson said.

The district sent most students home with paper-and-pencil packets with two days worth of school work, Johnson said. But they were not able to get those materials to the students who left earliest in the day. They are working on preparing and distributing additional school work, she said.

“We’ve been working pretty steadily for the last week to ensure that we have a thoughtful and responsive plan to serve our community,” Johnson said.

The closure will also be a burden for thousands of students in Indianapolis Public Schools who depend on the district for breakfast, lunch, and even dinner. The district has prepared about 8,000 prepackaged breakfasts and lunches to distribute Friday. Meals will be distributed to any children 18 or under at the parking lot of seven schools, and the district’s mobile food distribution bus is making stops at two apartment complexes. Food will be distributed daily through next week.

Indianapolis Public Schools is also planning to cancel a board meeting scheduled for Tuesday. It will hold its Thursday board meeting. The room will be closed to the public, but the meeting will be streamed live.

A full-scale rollout of online learning in Indianapolis would be difficult because more than 65% of students come from low-income families, and many have limited access to internet and computers at home. Through an informal survey of schools, the district estimates about half of students are prepared for online learning at home.

Avon schools, which closed last week after two students were confirmed to have COVID-19, has been offering virtual learning for students. But the suburban district was well-positioned for the approach because, unlike IPS, it was already using virtual education for cancelations such as snow days.

Indianapolis educators have been working for days to get ready for a possible closure. The Neighborhood Charter Network, which manages two schools in the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network, started with preparing paper packets for students, said Executive Director Kevin Kubacki in an interview before the closures Thursday.

But they are aiming to give students access to online work that’s more challenging. That includes looking for programs that students can access from cellphones, which is how many families connect to the internet.

“What we do want to do is mitigate the amount of lost instructional time that we do have,” Kubacki said. “We don’t want to just send home busy work for kids. … If we only rely on packets that we are sending home, it keeps kids busy but I don’t know that it’s going to push them forward in the same way as digital content.”