‘Unsustainable and unsafe’: ISTA calls for schools in red counties to move online

The Indiana State Teachers Association is calling for schools in counties hardest hit by COVID-19 to return to virtual learning.

The state’s largest teachers’ union issued a statement Friday, urging local school districts to adhere to state recommendations for school operations and for state officials to require compliance. So far, the state has not forced schools to follow guidance for when to limit or pause in-person instruction.

“This situation is unsustainable and unsafe,” said ISTA president Keith Gambill. “If your county is red, ISTA recommends districts move immediately to virtual learning for all students.”

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The recommendations for school operations are based on the state’s color-coded rating system for the level of COVID-19 spread within a county. Red indicates the highest levels of spread. While ISTA is calling for all schools in red counties to move to virtual learning, the state’s recommendations call for middle and high schools to move learning online and for schools to consider a hybrid schedule for elementary grades where transmission tend to be lower than among older students.

In the last weekly update of the state’s color-coded map, 20 counties were in the red category.

The state's color-coded map, based on levels of COVID-19 spread, captured on Nov. 20, 2020.

Another 71 counties were rated orange, the second highest category. In those counties, state recommendations would have middle and high schools operating on a hybrid schedule.

Putnam County is the only one of the state’s 92 counties not in one of the top two risk categories. It’s rated yellow. The state’s system also has a blue category, for minimal community spread, but there are no counties in it currently. When the color-coded metrics were first introduced, most counties were rated blue.

In response to the state’s skyrocketing numbers of new COVID-19 cases, Gov. Eric Holcomb issued new restrictions for counties based on their color rating. Those requirements, though, did not include school operations. Following that guidance, first issued in September, remains optional.

Health officials say they still haven’t seen evidence of widespread transmission within school settings and that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work when schools district vary greatly in size, circumstance and staffing resources. The latest guidance from the state says, “schools may remain open to in-person instruction at all levels as conditions permit.”

In lieu of stronger state guidelines, some schools and counties are making the choice to move instruction online themselves – some in accordance with the state recommendations and others due to staffing challenges, or increasing cases among their student populations. The Marion County Health Department has mandated that all the county’s schools close by Nov. 30.

Some, though, are continuing to operate in person and making for neighboring school districts sometimes operating very differently. ISTA is asking for “clear and specific measures that would direct districts to close schools based on community spread.”

“While we believe in-person instruction for students is best under normal circumstances, these aren’t normal circumstances,” Gambill said. “The lack of consistency within and across school districts is causing serious instability for students and educators alike. We simply cannot continue to put them and their families’ lives at risk.”

ISTA is also asking the state to mandate school participation in the Indiana State Department of Health’s COVID-19 reporting dashboard. Participation in the dashboard has been voluntary and nearly 400 schools are still not reporting cases among students, teachers or staff members.

Of those schools that are participating, 1,681 have reported at least one case and 288 have no cases.

Since the start of the school year, cases have been reported in 8,217 students, 1,685 teachers and 1,971 staff members statewide — nearly 12,000 cases total.

More than 3,300 of those were reported just last week.

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