Indiana schools close due to COVID surge

Indiana schools are trying to stay open as COVID surges, but record cases among students and employees have forced some to close.

“This one snuck up on us. We had already changed our mindset,” said Wayne Schools superintendent Jeff Butts. would have to wear masks anymore. Then omicron came along and ravaged everyone.

The state, whose 7-day positivity rate reached 30%, reported 15,485 cases among students last week, 1,137 for teachers and 1,471 for other staff – all breaking previous records and leading several districts to implement at least one remote learning.

Among them was Wayne, who reported 300 positive cases and more than 1,000 district-wide quarantines last week, prompting a two-day pivot to remote learning for Ben Davis High School.

The school had merged up to five classes into gymnasiums, but as of last week there weren’t enough adults to safely supervise students, Butts said. Going to remote learning allowed people to quarantine and return to campus, he said.

Strategies that have kept schools open in the past, such as masking and social distancing, have not been enough to fend off the highly transmissible variant of omicron, said John Christenson, associate medical director of infection prevention at Riley Children’s Health.

Another powerful tool to fight the virus, vaccinations, is lagging among Indiana children.

That leaves schools with tough choices to keep students and employees safe, including closures that can reduce cases but delay learning.

Butts said the masks were the second most effective mitigation measure in the district, behind last year’s hybrid learning that allowed students to better spread out.

But blended learning was worse for education, he said.

He doesn’t expect more virtual learning, but said the district will err on the side of security.

“If the growth continues, I don’t know if anyone will have a choice,” he said.

Vaccinations and other measures in schools

Christenson said pediatricians believe schools should stay open, given the effects of closures on academics and student mental health. But that is only possible through a combination of safety strategies, including masking and vaccination, which often come under political fire, he said.

This week, for example, House lawmakers passed a bill restricting employer vaccination mandates.

Only about 14% of children ages 5 to 11 in Indiana are fully immunized, compared to 62% of adults. Christenson attributes the discrepancy to parents’ fears about side effects or the mistaken belief that the virus does not cause serious illness in children.

He said his hospital has admitted two to three times as many children during this wave as they did a year ago. Many are in intensive care, and about half of them are on ventilators, including some who have spent more than a month on a ventilator, he said.

School districts often don’t track their students’ and staff’s immunization data and rarely report it publicly.

Where numbers are available, they represent only those who reported their status to the district or shared it during contact tracing.

Wayne schools have an 87% vaccination rate among staff, according to Butts, but a rate for students was not immediately available.

At Indianapolis public schools, nearly three-quarters of staff have been vaccinated after the district offered a $300 incentive last year.

But only about 6% of students are vaccinated, according to the district, though that percentage could be higher, since the figure only reflects students who reported their status or were vaccinated at one of the district’s clinics. The district moved some schools to remote learning last week.

The district is hosting clinics on campus in an effort to make the vaccine more accessible, according to Director of Health Services Megan Carlson. The clinics reserve several hours during the school day for students, so that parents can more easily make appointments for their children.

Carlson said the district also focuses its outreach efforts on 18-year-olds, encouraging them to sign up for dates.

“We’ve seen a lot of 18-year-olds come in for the shot, which is pretty awesome,” she said.

Carlson said the district also considered offering an incentive such as a raffle for students to get vaccinated. But he wouldn’t consider mandating the vaccination without guidance from the CDC.

A spokesperson for Anderson Schools, which offers cash incentives to students and staff to get vaccinated, said the district has seen a positive response, but will not provide the number of people vaccinated.

Warren Township declined to share staff data outside of the district “to mitigate against staff being a target,” according to a statement.

The statement also says the district does not have access to student vaccine information except through questions asked during contact tracing.

Warren sent students in grades 5 through 12 home for remote learning during the week of January 10, in an effort to keep younger students in school.

But this week, the number of staff in isolation has led the district to walk away completely for all grade levels, as well as closing child care centers and preschool programs it had previously tried to keep open to avoid causing hardship to families, according to spokesman Dennis Jarrett.

Jarrett said the district uses a weekly assessment to determine its next steps, which includes a tally of the number of staff available, as well as health data from the Marion County Health Department and the CDC.

Overall, Jarrett said, the district was better prepared for this surge after weathering nearly two years of the pandemic. The catering service is continuing and students can also stop by for technology and remote learning assistance, he said.

“We all wish it was over, but it’s our reality,” Jarrett said. “We are aware of this and are trying to do everything we can to make life easier for our families.”

Further school closures are possible in the future if a significant portion of the population remains unvaccinated, allowing the virus to evolve, said Christenson of Riley Children’s Health.

“We can end this pandemic quickly with these mitigations,” Christenson said. “But until we do it, or do it piecemeal, it’s not going to happen.”

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