School districts across the state are announcing extended closures to prevent potential spread of the new coronavirus among students, and the state is now making moves to postpone or cancel state tests for this year.
In a memo sent to superintendents late Friday, the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) announced Indiana would seek "forgiveness" for required state tests, including the IREAD-3 and ILEARN.
IDOE spokesperson Adam Baker said via text message that testing adds extra challenges to schools amidst the pandemic.
"With the pressure our schools are already facing navigating the COVID-19 outbreak, the last thing our schools need is the undue burden of preparing and administering statewide assessments, especially during a hold harmless year," he says.
COVID-19 led schools to practice hand washing, limit how often kids touch things like keyboards, and use "grab and go" style meals. But many across the state are closing, while facing questions about resources for vulnerable kids – and their part-time staff.
Fort Wayne Schools' director of health and eellness Mary Hess says they've tried to adapt short-term closure plans, for things like snow days, into longer-term plans – but it's complicated.
"We're really talking about longer periods of time than we're used to for almost anything else," she says.
Fort Wayne Community Schools and Vigo County School Corporation announced Friday their plans to close starting next week through the end of regularly scheduled spring break days. They join more than three dozen school districts across the state that had announced similar closures before the weekend. Many plan to offer remote learning options using online tools or paper packets sent home with students.
And while Vigo County Schools spokesperson Bill Riley says spring break can provide some distance between kids, he says it creates uncertainty too.
"Our community will be able to practice social distancing, right that's super, however we also know that there will be families that continue to travel," he says.
The closures have largely been called without officially confirmed cases of COVID-19 in those schools, but health experts say a lack of available testing could likely mean cases throughout the state have gone undetected.
But students at schools still operating won't be "business as usual" – some organizations and areas are canceling sporting events and after school activities.
State Education Actions
Gov. Eric Holcomb says he isn't planning to force a statewide closure of schools. A handful of states, including Ohio, have closed K-12 schools statewide.
"We just thought the right balance was allowing schools to determine, unless they start to have cases – and they're working with the Department of Health and working with [IDOE], that they'd be able to make those decisions because of food considerations, meals and transportation and daycare," Holcomb says.
But he says, as more evidence becomes available about the spread of the new coronavirus, his administration will get "more and more involved."
Holcomb also announced schools will be allowed to waive up to 20 instruction days out of the required 180-day school year calendar. A memo from IDOE went out Friday outlining how schools can access those waivers.
IDOE is also referring schools and teachers to eLearning resources available online.
Federal Education Response
The U.S. Department of Education shared guidance with schools this week saying it would consider offering waivers for schools to meet legal rules on student absences, and may offer temporary relief on testing requirements, something Indiana officials announced they would pursue.
"Due to the unique circumstances that may arise as a result of COVID-19, such as a school closing during the entire testing window, it may not be feasible for a State to administer some or all of its assessments, in which case the Department would consider a targeted one-year waiver of the assessment requirements for those schools impacted by the extraordinary circumstances," the guidance said.
Federal officials also sent a memo to schools reminding them of the importance of protecting student privacy as local agencies report information on confirmed COVID-19 cases, as well as outlining resources and supports for students with disabilities in case of extended closures.
"If an LEA continues to provide educational opportunities to the general student population during a school closure, the school must ensure that students with disabilities also have equal access to the same opportunities," the memo said.