IPS, Washington Township making plans to reopen, return students to classrooms

It’s one month into the school year and Indianapolis Public Schools have yet to welcome students back into their buildings. But that’s about to change.

The district announced Tuesday that Marion County’s rate of coronavirus infections has dropped low enough to start planning for the return of in-person instruction. IPS, one of the state’s largest school districts, decided in July to start the year virtually. At the time, the county’s average rate of positive COVID-19 tests was around 8%.

“We have been watching our health data very closely and are excited to have seen the movement in that data,” said Superintendent Aleesia Johnson. “Now it’s down right at the 5% mark… so, excited to now be at a place where we can be planning for a return to in-person instruction.”

IPS was one of three Marion County districts that started the year online. Pike Township Schools began bringing students back into classrooms last week. Washington Township schools also decided Tuesday to bring students back next month. Its youngest students will start returning to school Oct. 12 and all grades will come back Oct. 19. 

That means that on Oct. 19, when both IPS and Washington Township reopen to all grades, all Marion County students who want to be back in school will be for the first time since the pandemic closed school buildings seven months earlier.

When it decided to start the year remotely, the district said it wouldn’t return kids to classrooms until the county’s positivity rate was 5% or less. The district continues to move more cautiously than guidelines set by county and state health officials, but will move more in line with suggestions from the Marion County Health Department moving forward.

IPS will use a phased-in approach to bring students back into classrooms. Starting Oct. 5, the district’s youngest students – in grades pre-k through three – will be welcomed back for one week of face-to-face instruction. The next week, students will all return to virtual instruction. That week was originally supposed to be the district’s fall break, but when the board revised the calendar to push back the start of the year it voted to reclaim that week as virtual instruction days.

Starting with one week of in-person instruction with a small group of students will give the district a chance to work out the kinks of the return to school buildings, Johnson said.

Starting Oct. 19, the district will welcome back students in all grades for in-person instruction. Students in grades pre-k through five will be in school buildings five days a week. Students in sixth grade and up will operate on a hybrid schedule, with half of students receiving face-to-face instruction on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other half on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will be a virtual learning day for all upper grade students.

When students are out of buildings Wednesday, the district will clean classrooms and prepare schools for the next group of children.

IPS will continue to offer a full-time virtual option for families who would like it. The window to choose that option will open Wednesday and close on Sept. 21. The district said it needs to know how many students will be returning in order to finalize plans about how to divide students among teachers, space seating in classrooms and more.

Katy Larson virtually instructs sixth grade students from her classroom at James Russell Lowell School 51 in Indianapolis on Monday, August 17, 2020. Indianapolis Public Schools are beginning the academic year with online instruction until at least October, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

When families were originally asked to decide between in-person and virtual options in July, about 9,000 families – a little less than one-third of the district – chose the virtual option. Some may feel differently after a month of online schooling, though. Although the virtual model for IPS students is more robust now than it was in the spring, school officials said they are still struggling with attendance. Attendance has been trending up each week, according to IPS officials, but still sits around 80%.

Attendance and enrollment have been challenges for schools around the state since the restart of the school year. During a webinar for school leaders Tuesday morning, Superintedent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick said schools statewide are seeing high numbers of absences and tracking down kids who haven’t shown up yet this year.

The majority of districts that have already started the year with some degree of in-person instruction have had cases of COVID-19 occur among their students or staff members. In most instances, though, schools appear to have been able to prevent a single case from turning into a widespread outbreak. It’s still unclear just how widespread COVID-19 is in Indiana’s schools. A public dashboard that will report that information is expected to launch later this month. IndyStar has been tracking cases since schools reopened and has recorded more than 750.

Some schools have launched their own dashboards to report positive cases and information about how many students and staff members have been required to quarantine. Johnson said IPS will do the same once students return to school buildings.

This story will be updated.

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