Washington Township Schools won’t offer in-person instruction in a reversal

A student works on a laptop computer during a special education classroom exercise.
A Noel Community Arts School student works on a laptop computer during a special education classroom exercise in Denver, Colo. —May, 2019 photo— Nathan W. Armes/Chalkbeat (Nathan W. Armes/Chalkbeat)

Washington Township will only offer virtual instruction when school begins this year, a shift in course for the Indianapolis district that had planned to open in-person and full-time with an online option. 

The Washington Township School Board voted 3-2 Monday morning to indefinitely delay the return to classrooms as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage across the country and amid concern from teachers and parents about the safety of reopening. 

Washington Township, which enrolls about 11,000 students who will return to school July 30, is the first Marion County district to announce plans to offer only virtual instruction and not reopen classrooms. Many Marion County districts are planning to offer full-time, in-person instruction in the fall in addition to virtual options, including the state’s largest district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which released a reopening plan Friday

In a joint statement posted on the district website, the Washington Township board acknowledged that it must “address students’ educational, social and emotional needs” but also pointed to rising coronavirus rates.

“The board is in a difficult position given limited specific guidance from the governor, the mayor, and public health officials,” the statement said. “It is the board’s judgment that the best course of action in the near term is not to have students return to the classroom while coronavirus indicators increase.”

The about-face demonstrates the fraught issues district leaders across the country must grapple with as they decide whether and how to reopen schools at a time when the pandemic is growing worse in many communities. Schools are a crucial resource for families. They offer stability and essentials like food for the most vulnerable children. For parents who must work, school is a source of safe, reliable child care. And experts estimate that students have lost months of learning because of the abrupt closures in the spring. 

At the same time, there are deep fears that prematurely returning to school in person will endanger the health of staff, students and family members who may be especially at risk if they contract COVID-19. In Indiana, the seven-day average for new cases is at its highest since May 20, according to the IndyStar

Washington Township initially planned to reopen classrooms, but as the start of the year approached, COVID numbers rose across the country, and anxiety built, the district reconsidered. The board has received a barrage of emails about the reopening plan, said school board President John Fencl, who estimated he received about 10 emails per hour on Sunday. 

Please email the School Board today and urge them to vote Monday for an ALL online reopening of MSDWT.

Posted by WTEA Info on Sunday, July 12, 2020

At the Monday board meeting, union President Sabra Gage thanked the board for listening to feedback from teachers who were opposed to reopening in person. 

Teachers worked with the administration for a week to try and find a solution for returning to classrooms they were comfortable with, Gage said through tears. “We miss our students. We miss being in community with them. … The teachers are in agony that we are not able to see our students.”

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Nonetheless, Gage added, “We believe that we need to lead the way in Indiana for those school districts and communities that feel that they cannot go back at this time for the safety and health of their communities.”

The Washington Township boundaries include some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Indianapolis as well as many low-income areas. The district’s decision could blaze a trail for neighboring districts that are hashing out reopening. 

Indianapolis City-County Councillor Ali Brown said in a statement that she hopes other districts will follow Washington Township’s lead. “These choices are very hard for schools and parents, but we cannot allow our teachers and children become sacrifices to the economy,” she said. 

Because school districts are offering virtual options for students, however, families with health concerns will be able to opt out of in-person school. As a result, pressure to delay reopening is more likely to come from teachers and staff who can’t easily choose to work from home. 

In a letter sent Saturday, the Washington Township Parent Council Network raised a host of questions and concerns about the reopening plan but declined to take a position on whether students should return to classrooms. The letter noted that under guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reopening options are categorized by level of risk, with virtual instruction considered the least risky and in-person instruction without social distancing or other precautions considered the riskiest.

“There is considerable fear among many parents that we might be jumping back into the highest risk category too soon,” the letter said. 

School board member Wanda Thruston, who teaches at the Indiana University School of Nursing, said that Black residents are already at greater risk of infection with COVID-19, and reopening schools could exacerbate that problem. 

“As an African American, I’m concerned about the disparities. ... I’m concerned about our families, our vulnerable families who would probably be at school, and then those students taking the infection back to their home and increasing the health disparities that already exist in our community,” said Thruston, who had COVID-19 earlier this year.

Thruston was one of three board members who voted to delay returning to classrooms. But two board members felt the cost of keeping school buildings closed was too steep. 

“I am concerned about the social-emotional health of our children and the kids that aren’t doing well because they’re not in school,” said Fencl, who voted against the all-virtual option. 

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While schools across Indiana are releasing in-person reopening plans, many districts in other states are opting not to fully reopen school buildings. In New York City, for example, students are expected to have staggered schedules and come to school in person part time. 

Whether to reopen schools full time has become a political lightning rod in recent days, as U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Trump have called for schools to fully reopen and threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that don’t.

That debate is coming at a moment when Indianapolis schools are on the cusp of reopening. Most schools in Marion County begin in late July or early August — several weeks before schools typically return in Northeastern states.

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