ELKHART — Local school officials say they believe the state’s decision to close all Indiana K-12 classrooms through the end of the year was difficult, but the right move.
During Gov. Eric Holcomb’s press briefing Thursday afternoon, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick announced that school buildings across the state will close for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year as part of an effort to stem the coronavirus.
Schools were initially ordered to close until May 1 and were not required to provide remote instruction, though many offered online learning or distributed at-home assignments. Schools must complete a minimum of 160 total instructional days for the school year, which is a reduction from the typical 180-day requirement.
Districts have until mid-April to provide the state with plans for continuing instruction online or through other methods.
Seniors will receive credit toward graduation for courses they are enrolled in this semester, she said. Younger high school and middle school students will have to earn credits for this semester’s courses as determined by local districts, McCormick said.
In Elkhart County, school officials said they were saddened by the decision, but not surprised.
Elkhart Community Schools Superintendent Steve Thalheimer said he believes Thursday’s decision was a wise move needed to mitigate contact and reduce community spread of the coronavirus.
“I know that students and teachers miss their contact with each other; I know there has been a steep learning curve for our teachers and a lot asked of our food service staff; I know that families feel the pressures of work or not having work, of very different home life, and now schooling at home,” he said. “However, given the extraordinary circumstances we are in right now, I don’t think the state had any other choice.”
Thalheimer said the district would tentatively carry forward through the end of May with the pattern it had been following.
“When we developed our plan for the alternating days of e-learning on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, we saw that this plan would take us through the end of the semester and utilize the 20 waiver days from the state, leaving 160 instructional days,” Thalheimer said. “We were trying to anticipate what this would look like if the state did what it did today. We will look at what this means for the actual last days of school, but as of this moment, we would carry forward with the pattern we were following through early May.”
Kerry Mullet, president of the Elkhart Teachers Association, offered a similar sentiment.
“Teachers will continue to work collaboratively with administration to deliver the best instruction possible utilizing the e-learning tools at our disposal,” she said. “So, although our buildings will remain closed, continuous learning is still a top priority.”
As for graduation, Thalheimer said the district has been having internal discussions and is making some alternative plans.
“We will continue with that thinking and potentially reach out to students and the community for ideas,” he said.
At Concord Community Schools, Interim Superintendent Denise Seger said district leaders are meeting and having discussions about how the decision to extend school closures will impact students, staff and family.
“We know that this will impact spring events across all grade levels, including music programs, athletics, prom and graduation,” she said. “We will be communicating regularly with our community as those decisions are made.”
As this situation has evolved, Seger said the district has worked to balance instruction for students along with the swift turn to virtual learning.
“Feedback has indicated that while students should continue learning, we also know that parents/guardians have taken on a new role as well,” she said. “We believe that the best use of time following this announcement is to continue on the path we have been following – some e-learning days and some non-e-learning days. We can fulfill the governor’s obligation by continuing with this pattern.”
Baugo Community Schools Superintendent Byron Sanders said he’s devastated for the seniors and all students who look forward to the extracurricular experiences that public schools have to offer.
“I am confident in the amazing teachers of Baugo Community Schools to provide quality virtual learning experiences during this difficult time,” Sanders said. “I am also proud of our parents who are doing everything they can to make learning a priority every single instructional day.”
“Ultimately I know that this decision was made to protect our communities,” he said. “The health and safety of our children is our district’s first core value. We will respond to this new set of circumstances and move forward.”
Indiana is the 11th state to close schools for the remainder of the academic year. Thursday’s decision came hours after Michigan called off its school year.