‘Can’t sacrifice lives’: Indianapolis-area schools start virtually with joy, hiccups

After rolling out of bed and eating a homemade waffle for breakfast, Caitlin Totten picked out the T-shirt she wanted to wear for the first day of middle school.

“It has a cat on it,” she said, looking down at the cat wearing glasses and doing a science experiment with beakers and test tubes. 

What else she was wearing didn’t matter so much. Her teachers and classmates wouldn’t see much of anything from her shoulders down.

Caitlin and her younger sister, Bryna Totten, are among the 11,000 or so Washington Township students to start their new school year online Thursday — the first district in Indianapolis to start its school year in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

Caitlin Totten (left) and Bryna Totten do school work at home during the first day of school at Washington Township. The district is starting the year virtually.

The district decided earlier this month to start the year as scheduled, on July 30, but only offer virtual instruction. The board is reviewing local coronavirus data every couple of weeks, but has not set a date at which it will bring students back into classrooms. 

Most schools in Indiana have adopted balanced calendars, where summer breaks are shorter in favor of longer breaks throughout the school year. What that means this year — in the time of the novel coronavirus — is that Indiana is one of the first to restart school after the pandemic interrupted education nationwide in the spring. 

While some districts, like Washington Township, have chosen to start the year remotely as the state has seen cases of COVID-19 surge in recent weeks, others have started welcoming students back into buildings. Students returned to schools in Avon on Wednesday and Brownsburg on Thursday, both in suburban Hendricks County.

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The Marion County Health Department has said that all schools in Indianapolis and surrounding areas cannot return to in-person instruction until Aug. 5, at the earliest. All 11 of the county’s public school districts had planned start dates ahead of that, leaving districts to decide between a virtual start or pushing back their academic calendar. 

Beech Grove Schools, a small community school system within Marion County, also choose to start as planned on Thursday. It will conduct remote learning until Aug. 10. 

“We think it’s important for kids to get into the routine of education,” said Superintendent Paul Kaiser. “We didn’t want to wait any longer to do that.”

‘They were both still in their pajamas’

Parents are excited to get back into the school year, too.

They may not have left home, but Amanda Louden still made sure to celebrate the first day of school for her two youngest sons. Madoc is a sophomore and Parker is starting the seventh grade, both in Washington Township. 

“I did get my first day of school picture,” Louden said, “but this time they were both still in their pajamas and on their Chromebook.”

Both boys had full days of school, mostly back-to-back-to-back Zoom video calls. 

“We’re all supposed to be on video,” Madoc said, “but you can tilt the camera up… and do whatever you want, as long as you’re paying attention.

“As an avid guitar player, I can do that. Especially these first few days where we’re not actually doing anything. They’re just talking.”

‘I want my kids to learn’

Like any start to a new school year, there were bound to be hiccups. 

After a video chat with her new fourth-grade teacher, Bryna did her assigned 30 minutes of reading — she finished a book called “Appleblossom the Possum” — and math practice. Her first day of school was over before 11 a.m. 

“I’m just doing more,” she said, “because that’s a really short school day.”

In mismatched striped socks, she sat in the desk nook her dad Jason Totten set up, playing math games on her iPad. Bryna said she’s never put much thought into her first day of school outfit, but this year she did have to do something else to get ready.

Bryna Totten, a fourth-grader, plays math games on her iPad at home during the first day of school at Washington Township. The district is starting the year virtually.

“It didn’t take me long to eat breakfast,” she said, “but I had to hurry and charge my keyboard.”

Bryna and Caitlin each have a matching workspace in their upstairs art room. Their desks are pressed up to lavender walls, set next to windows that look out onto the front lawn and the quiet street of their subdivision on the north side of Indianapolis.

Caitlin moved into her bedroom for choir practice, but otherwise the art room will probably be their classroom for at least the first semester of this year. Totten said as much as he’d like to send them back to school, the health risks are too great. 

“I want my kids to learn,” he said. “I don’t want them to fall behind but we can’t sacrifice lives for a setback in education.” 

Call IndyStar education reporter Arika Herron at 317-201-5620 or email her at Arika.Herron@indystar.com. Follow her on Twitter: @ArikaHerron.