Local schools backtrack as county’s COVID-19 cases rise

The state on Thursday broke its daily record for newly reported COVID-19 cases by more than 700, and five of the county’s six school districts decided to revert to hybrid learning next week.

Clark-Pleasant, Edinburgh, Franklin, Greenwood and Indian Creek schools all announced changes Thursday. Just half of the schools’ middle and high school students will be in classrooms each day starting Monday, officials said. Elementary students throughout the county will continue to attend school in person, which has been the case since the start of the school year.

For some, the changes take effect as early as Friday.

At Clark-Pleasant and Greenwood schools, all students will learn virtually Friday. At Edinburgh, Franklin and Indian Creek schools, Friday will be a standard in-person day, according to school documents.

Citing low quarantine numbers at Center Grove Community Schools, superintendent Rich Arkanoff defended the decision to continue in-person learning five days a week at all of its schools.

“Our numbers aren’t leading us to make that decision at this point. We’re monitoring PPE and we seem to be doing fine, same with our cleaning supplies and staff. We’ll continue to monitor those things,” Arkanoff said.

“We will stand by in-person instruction as the best model of instruction. There’s been an increase in mental health issues across the schools, and the best thing we can do is to keep those students in front of us.”

Although Center Grove tied its record this week with 10 new COVID-19 cases, its quarantine numbers haven’t been released yet. Last week, when the district had six cases, it quarantined 135 students, less than a third of the 418 it quarantined the week of Aug. 24, when it had three cases. The amount of students in quarantine at one time is about 2% of the overall student body, which school leaders can handle, Arkanoff said.

The decisions of the other five school districts are linked to Wednesday’s update of the Indiana State Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard, which placed Johnson County in the orange category, the second-highest warning level. The rise in alert level comes after the county climbed above the 200 weekly cases per 100,000 residents threshold to 245, according to health department data.

The week before, there were 198 cases per 100,000 residents. The color-coded map is updated at noon every Wednesday on the state health department’s website.

With the orange category comes recommendations of hybrid learning at the secondary level, meaning students at middle and high schools attend school in person on alternating days, decreasing student traffic by about 50% each day.

At Clark-Pleasant schools, for example, middle and high school students with last names beginning with the letters A through K will attend school in person on Mondays and Thursdays, and the remaining students will attend school in person on Tuesdays and Fridays. All middle and high school students in Clark-Pleasant, Franklin, Greenwood and Indian Creek will learn from home on Wednesdays.

At Edinburgh schools, students whose last names begin with A through I will go to school on alternating days starting Monday, while the remaining students will go to school on alternating days starting Tuesday. That schedule will continue from Monday through Nov. 24, the last day before Thanksgiving break. Administrators hope to have students back in school full time Nov. 30, superintendent Doug Arnold said.

“Unless there is a problem we learn from the (Indiana State Department of Health), our intention is to return Nov. 30 in person for all our students,” Arnold said. “We will monitor what level the county is identified. If it is yellow or blue, (we will return). One thing the board of health recommended is that families need to be really careful and limit social events during Thanksgiving.”

At Franklin schools, which notified parents of seven COVID-19 cases Thursday, students had just returned from hybrid learning Monday, the last in the county to move all of its students back to the classroom full time.

The orange category also affects attendance at county football games. At Center Grove High School’s home playoff game tonight, attendance will be capped at 25%, down from 50% at the previous game. At Whiteland Community High School’s home playoff game tonight, attendance will be limited to about 300 on the home side, and about 150 on the visiting side, with Whiteland players and cheerleaders getting four tickets each for family only, and visiting players getting two tickets each.

“Wish we had better options, some guidance given to us suggest no fans,” superintendent Patrick Spray tweeted. “We have determined having family there to support the players is appropriate, which is why tickets are further restricted.”

For the county to improve enough to move back to the state’s yellow category, weekly cases per 100,000 residents would have to drop below 200, but numbers are not trending in that direction.

The average number of newly reported daily cases in the county has increased from 10 on Sept. 24, two days before Indiana moved to its final stage of reopening, to 64 on Thursday, a day when 93 COVID-19 cases were reported, the most since May. Statewide, Indiana recorded 4,457 cases Thursday, a single-day record, and had 1,948 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, also a record, according to health department data.

Indian Creek families will be able to request free meals via a Google Form, which will serve three breakfasts and three lunches on students’ first day of in-person learning next week, to account for the days they would be learning from home, said Tim Edsell, superintendent.

Other school districts were still finalizing their meal plans Thursday.