What happens if coronavirus closures extend into the fall? Indiana schools are already preparing.

When Fort Wayne Schools staffers met with the county health commissioner on March 4, they were told campuses could be forced to close for as long as 28 days to help contain the spread of coronavirus.

“The whole room was aghast at what that would mean for the community,” said Krista Stockman, spokeswoman for the district. But a month later, after statewide school closures were extended for the rest of the academic year and as the pandemic continues to spread in Indiana, she said educators have started grappling with the fact that closures may last much longer.

“We could have a second wave in the fall,” Stockman said. “This could just keep going on, and we may not start in the fall.”

A growing number of Indiana educators are beginning to prepare for remote instruction to go into the next academic year. Schools that were caught off guard and initially focused on triaging the immediate needs posed by building closures are now recognizing that they could be shut down indefinitely. As a result, districts are making massive investments in technology with the aim of ensuring all students have computers or tablets by the fall. And community leaders are raising funds to train teachers in a bid to improve the quality of the instruction that happens online.

The likelihood of distance learning stretching into the fall remains unclear. Anthony Fauci, a physician and the leading infectious disease expert on the White House coronavirus task force, was optimistic that classrooms will be able to reopen by then. But education leaders across the country — including top officials in Maryland and Washington state — are cautiously getting ready for closures to extend into the fall or begin again if the U.S. is hit with a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

“The question is, how do we put in place some sort of planning so that next year when this happens we’re not scrambling?” said Michael Barbour, associate professor of instructional design for the College of Education and Health Science at Touro University in California.

For schools to improve the quality of remote instruction, they must not only ensure students have access to devices and the internet but also train teachers to use remote tools effectively and prepare students to learn independently online, Barbour said.

The most concrete step many Indiana schools are taking is purchasing additional technology to give to students next year. Fort Wayne moved up plans to go “one-to-one” so each student can have their own device, and the district will use federal stimulus money to purchase about 700 additional devices. And Indianapolis Public Schools is also preparing for an extended period of  remote instruction by purchasing enough devices for each student to have one. The district is hoping philanthropic dollars will offset the cost.

It’s a significant transition for IPS, which had to distribute thousands of Chromebooks and mobile hotspots in order for high schoolers to complete spring courses online. Elementary and middle school students are using paper packets this semester.

The district is making an investment in devices because “we are assuming that there will be a world in which we’ll need to be in a remote or home-learning environment again,” said Superintendent Aleesia Johnson.

A newly launched Marion County e-learning fund aims to help schools connect students from low-income families with essential resources, including internet access and devices. The fund, however, is designed to do more than plug short-term holes. The money will go toward creating long-term plans to improve virtual learning and meet the mental health needs of students in Indianapolis. It will also create a lab for educators across the state to share what they’ve learned about remote instruction.

“It’s likely going to take a while to return to normal,” said Brandon Brown, who is on the fund advisory and CEO of The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis education nonprofit. Making sure students have technology is not enough to make remote instruction work, but it is an essential prerequisite.

“I tend to think that the device is actually most important to facilitate human interaction between educators and students,” Brown added.

The Tindley charter network, which runs three Indianapolis campuses, is using technology to support hours of virtual connections between students and teachers. The schools are attempting to mirror traditional days, with students regularly signing on for video classes, said CEO Brian Metcalf. The network, which had not used remote instruction before, bought hundreds of devices for students to make the approach work.

They are still working out gaps, like how to mentor and evaluate teachers, Metcalf said. But the goal from the start was to come up with a plan Tindley schools could use if buildings remained closed indefinitely, Metcalf said.

“We are sending the message that this is school,” Metcalf said, “just school done in a different way.”