Reopened Schools Can’t Avoid COVID-19 Cases, Indiana’s Top Health Official Says

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Reopened Schools Can’t Avoid COVID-19 Cases, Indiana’s Top Health Official Says

In a first-grade classroom at Tindley Summit Academy in Indianapolis, empty desks sit spaced out in rows with plastic shield dividers so students can take off their masks while working.
Indiana Health Commissioner Kristina Box says she still believes schools can reopen safely with precautions, including by requiring social distancing and masks.
 Stephanie Wang/Chalkbeat

Indiana’s top health official said it’s impossible to keep COVID-19 out of the state’s schools as they reopen — but that doesn’t necessarily mean they should close their doors again.

“Having a case of COVID in schools should not be a reason for panic … or for schools to close,” Health Commissioner Kristina Box said Wednesday. “It’s a reason to take action.”

Her comments come after a growing number of districts statewide reported positive cases among students and staff within the first week of classes. In Central Indiana, that included the Greenfield, Warren, Avon, and Brownsburg school districts, according to the Indianapolis Star.

Box said she still believes schools can reopen safely with precautions, including social distancing, grouping students, and requiring masks. She called on families to do their part by screening their children before sending them to school and having them stay home while waiting for test results.

The conversation is different now than in March when Gov. Eric Holcomb closed school buildings statewide, she said. In March, the state was worried about COVID-19 cases overwhelming the state’s health care system. While hospitalizations statewide are rising, Box said the focus now is on avoiding an outbreak.

“This does not mean that our schools will be free of COVID,” she said. “What it means is that we all need to take steps to limit the spread.”

The state has declined to set a statewide benchmark — such as a number of cases or community positivity rates — for when a classroom or entire school must close. That should be handled case by case basis, Box repeated.

As for how the state will report and track cases in schools, Box said officials are working to figure that out, including whether releasing data would violate child privacy laws. Schools should ask families to self-report positive cases, she said, and state contact tracers will ask every person who tests positive whether they have been to a school.

“I promise you, I am working very hard to try to get to yes on this,” she said.

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