As much of the nation wrestles with how to reopen schools safely in a pandemic, northeast Indiana schools have been open since August, with limited interruptions.
A state website shows that between 2% and 3% of northeast Indiana students have been diagnosed with COVID-19 this school year, but regional educators say few of those infections were caused by attending school.
“Most of the spread — nearly all — is a result of immediate family contacts and gatherings. Not school!” said Superintendent Ann Linson of the East Noble school district.
“This year we have only seen one situation where COVID-19 was transmitted among our student population,” said Bill Stitt, superintendent of Fremont Community Schools.
Across 13 northeast Indiana public school districts, at least 530 students, 84 teachers and 141 school staff members have been diagnosed with COVID-19 during the school year. Those school districts have a combined enrollment of nearly 23,700 students.
The COVID-19 infection numbers come from an Indiana State Department of Health website, where school districts are supposed to report their COVID-19 cases.
One local superintendent questioned whether all school districts are reporting accurately. However, superintendents at three of the region’s four largest districts confirmed to us that their numbers are correct on the coronavirus.in.gov website.
Our totals compiled from the website are conservative and likely lower than the actual counts. The state reports any school’s infection numbers between 1-4 as “less than 5.” In those instances, we counted the school’s total as one.
“We have pushed testing hard,” said Linson, whose district leads the area in all categories of cases. “This may have increased our reported numbers, but it is in an effort to locate positive people and limit future spreading of the virus.”
Whatever the accurate total of COVID-19 cases, local superintendents emphasize the value of offering in-person instruction.
“We have not had a day when we have not been in school,” said Randy Miller, superintendent of the Westview School Corporation. “I think we owe it to our community to have our doors open and to educate our kids. It’s a level of service that, as a staff, we can be really proud of that we’ve done that so far.”
“When schools open, students and staff will contract the virus,” Linson said. “However, we all need to weigh the risks. Which is greater, COVID or the social emotional health of our students? Isolation and disengagement is difficult for our youth and can have long-term effects.”
Linson added, “When schools and districts practice the safe COVID protocols, which are as simple as wearing a mask, distancing and using hand sanitizer, the number of COVID cases will be fewer than they may assume will occur.”
“Although there have been positive cases, there is little to no evidence of spread in our buildings or on our buses,” said Steve Teders, superintendent of DeKalb Central Schools. “We have maintained a safe environment, and it has been a team effort by all those involved, including our incredibly resilient students.”
“County-wide collaboration, along with guidance from the county health department, coupled with a team effort in the schools and on the buses, staff and students have helped decrease the COVID spread through continual masking, social distancing, multiple sanitation and cleaning efforts throughout the day,” said Shane Conwell, chief financial officer of DeKalb Eastern schools, who will become the district’s superintendent next month.
Several districts were forced to halt in-person classes temporarily during the first half the school year, because too many students and teachers were in quarantine after exposure to people who were ill with COVID-19. However, all returned to their buildings after the interruptions, which usually lasted a week.
“We started the year with all in-person students attending every day,” Stitt said. “The week before Thanksgiving, we had so many on quarantine we switched to remote learning for everyone. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas vacation we implemented a blended schedule. K-4 was in-person every day, 6-12 was two days a week in-person and three days a week remote. Since coming back from Christmas vacation we have been in-person K-12.”
Not all students are attending in-person classes, however. Stitt said 13% of Fremont students chose remote learning from home during the first semester of the school year, but that has dropped to 7% for the second semester.
Looking back to the start of the school year, “I believe something I would have changed then, due to what I know now, is to strongly encourage more students to come back to in-person learning,” Teders said.
“Simply put, our teachers and administrators were amazing and came up with a solution in order to accommodate the needs of both in-person and virtual students,” at DeKalb Central, Teders said. “In the elementary environment, we were able to have stand-alone virtual classes, while other teachers were able to teach in-person students exclusively.”
“From the very beginning of the pandemic, our staff has been committed to providing the best possible learning environment to our students in the safest way possible. The combination of in-person and virtual instruction has served our students well during these challenging times,” said Brent Wilson, superintendent for the Metropolitan School District of Steuben County.
“As we plan for next school year, we are planning for all students to return in person and will adjust accordingly, based on guidance from our local and state health departments, as well as the CDC,” Teders said.