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COVID: Evansville schools want to stay open. Whether they should is complicated

Evansville Courier & Press logo Evansville Courier & Press 11/24/2020 Jon Webb, Evansville Courier & Press

As COVID-19 metastasizes across Indiana and the Tri-State, more and more schools are moving toward virtual learning.

Per an order from Gov. Andy Beshear last week, Kentucky schools will keep most kids out of class for the rest of the semester. Warrick and Marion counties are making a similar move, while North Gibson will bar Princeton middle- and high-school students from in-person instruction at least through Thanksgiving.

Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. and the Diocese of Evansville sit in the middle of all that. But during a Thursday news conference about COVID-19 and Thanksgiving, Mayor Lloyd Winnecke said he recently spoke with superintendents David Smith and Daryl Hagan, and both school systems “have every desire to remain open.”  

a close up of a blackboard: Visit IndyStar's COVID-19 Indiana Schools Resource Guide for the latest information. © Photo illustration by Stephen J. Beard Visit IndyStar's COVID-19 Indiana Schools Resource Guide for the latest information.

“Both feel like they, at this point, have the staffing to do so,” he said. “But I think it’s safe to say they have contingencies if the case load gets to the point they can’t staff schools.”

Opening schools at all was one of the most controversial aspects of the pandemic.

Back in August, public health experts and braying journalists alike worried what would happen when we let gobs of students stream into classrooms and head back home to their parents and grandparents at the end of the day.

But aside from a few sporadic closings, Evansville-area schools have dodged huge outbreaks.

More: COVID: 3 reasons things could soon get worse in Indiana and Evansville

More: COVID: Here's how long it could take to notice a surge in cases after Thanksgiving

According to school-by-school data on Indiana’s coronavirus dashboard, high schools have seen the most cases locally. As of Friday, Reitz topped the list at 39, with Castle following at 26.

Elementary schools haven’t been as flushed. Citing random testing across the country, the New York Times reported last month that “schools do not seem to be stoking community transmission of the coronavirus.”

But student cases are creeping up in Indiana.

On Nov. 9, Indiana reported 617 new student cases – double the count of any other day in the past two months. That number has since hovered around 300. And since the state began compiling school data in September, more than 8,000 students, 1,600 teachers and 1,900 staff members have tested positive.

The shift toward virtual learning has been difficult, too.

Speaking anonymously to the Courier & Press in September, some teachers said the huge demand for EVSC’s Virtual Learning Academy forced the corporation to remove some teachers from in-person instruction, leaving the remaining educators to pick up the slack in large classrooms that struggled to adhere to social distancing.

Then there are parents who are either homeschooling or watching their kids closely to make sure they complete their virtual assignments – all while slogging through the normal demands of jobs and households.

Vanderburgh County set yet another record for daily cases on Friday. And there could easily come a time in the coming days or weeks when it’s unsafe for people to gather anywhere, much less crowded school buildings.

But if we consider closing schools, we’re gonna have to take a hard look at our other coronavirus restrictions as well.

Even after Gov. Eric Holcomb yanked Indiana out of “Stage 5” of its reopening plan, he neglected to make a blanket edict about bars and restaurants which, under state rules, continue to operate at full tilt.

I don’t know how elected officials could look at their constituents with a straight face and say “don’t send your kid to school, but head on down to the Texas Roadhouse!”

Local officials can set restrictions of their own. But that hasn’t happened in Vanderburgh County, even after Winnecke pleaded with returning college students to stay away from bars over the Thanksgiving holiday.

“This is the year to not get together with your high school buddies and go to a bar or go running around,” he said during Thursday’s news conference.

Closing schools could keep people safer. And making the move so close to the holiday break could lessen the impact on working parents who would struggle to make accommodations for kids who suddenly find themselves at home.

But all this illuminates a sad fact of the pandemic: almost nine months into this monster, we still have exactly zero good answers.

The prevailing national strategy consists of two shaky bullet points: wear a mask and pray your neighbor does the same; and white-knuckle it until a vaccine rides into town like a conquering hero.

In the meantime, here we are: mired in worry and confusion. We have to find a way to do what’s best for students, teachers, staff, parents and the community as a whole.

But I, just like everyone else, have no idea what that is.

Contact columnist Jon Webb at jon.webb@courierpress.com 

This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: COVID: Evansville schools want to stay open. Whether they should is complicated

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