‘A big undertaking’: Indiana’s fall reopening guidance has schools worried about costs

No students are in the classrooms at Lakewood High School on March 16, 2020, in Lakewood, Colorado.
Implementing state recommendations for reopening schools will prove costly, educators say. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

When Indiana schools reopen in the fall, students may ride half-empty buses, eat lunch at their desk, or show up in-person just a couple days a week. 

Educators say they’re already weighing these possibilities, outlined in the state’s newly released re-entry guidelines. The problem they face: All these changes will cost money. 

“The real issue will be implementing this, getting school started,” said Dennis Costerison, the executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials. “This is a big undertaking”

Among the top and most costly challenges for districts will be restructuring operations to adhere to social-distancing protocols, transporting students, and hiring the additional staff to ramp up cleaning efforts, educators told Chalkbeat after seeing the state document

The state’s largest teachers union, Indiana State Teachers Association, responded Friday by calling on the governor to ensure there are no cuts to K-12 funding, saying re-opening under the state’s recommendations will create “significant costs” for local schools. 

Education funding makes up about half of the state budget, and it seems unlikely that schools will escape cuts, as state revenue drops due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus. 

“Our students and staff should not pay the price during this crisis,” ISTA said in a statement.

Holcomb did not immediately address concerns about the cost for schools when asked about it during his regular public update Friday. In an email, spokesperson Rachel Hoffmeyer pointed to federal relief from the CARES Act. She also said districts had requested reimbursements for cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, such as masks, from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.

In the 38-page re-entry guidelines, released by State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, the state advises schools to approach budgeting “in a conservative manner,” suggesting they look for federal and state grants that can help. Schools are also advised to track their additional costs, should more federal aid become available in the future. 

Ultimately, it will be up to each district to decide how to reopen their buildings, which closed in March due to the coronavirus. The state guidelines focus more on health recommendations, and don’t paint a clear picture of what schools will look like next academic year. 

But it does give districts a few ideas on how to implement social-distancing guidelines, including continuing to use remote learning for older students, grouping students and alternating days they are in the building, and moving classes outdoors whenever possible. 

“Providing students with a quality education is critical,” McCormick said in a statement. “And therefore it is crucial we offer considerations focused on getting students back in the classroom in a safe manner.”

Pike Township Superintendent Flora Reichanadter said with distancing restrictions, she will only be able to fit about 12 students on each school bus — and most of her students rely on buses to get to school. 

Pike has already considered most of the checklist of considerations put forward by the state, Reichanadter said. The district has started drafting a plan, which includes continuing to offer a remote option for students who can’t or refuse to return to school. 

“I’m ready to get my plan finalized,” Reichanadter said Friday morning. “We feel very confident that we will only have to tweak a couple of things.”

But for districts in rural areas, running two bus routes could prove impossible, with students more spread out and many drivers working second jobs during the day, said Chris Lagoni, executive director of the Indiana Small and Rural Schools Association.

Many of the districts in his association are discussing how to meet heightened cleaning expectations without breaking the budget. And some school systems are advocating to get better broadband access in the area, in case school buildings close again or students or teachers are quarantined. 

“That’s why it was so crucial that this information come out early,” Lagoni said. “There’s just a lot of moving parts here.”

Friday’s release comes a month sooner than Gov. Eric Holcomb originally planned, following pushback from McCormick and educators. Most districts are set to start school at the beginning of August, which leaves them little time to prepare.

Local districts’ concerns about social distancing echo those from school leaders nationwide as states begin to consider how to return to school.

In its interim guidance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended canceling field trips, serving meals in classrooms rather than in a cafeteria, and staggering students’ arrival, among other measures. Colorado and Illinois have both released re-opening guidance that suggests groups be limited to 10 people or fewer.

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