Indiana Education Head On Reopening Schools: Contact Tracing Is A 'Beast'

Aug 11, 2020
Originally published on August 11, 2020 12:08 pm

In Indiana, school has started up for many students — or will in the next week. It's one of a majority of states where local districts will make most of the decisions about what school will look like this year.

Many districts across the state are bringing students back in person but are also offering online learning for those nervous about returning. Schools have already recorded positive coronavirus cases since reopening and had to adjust their plans, including shutting down temporarily.

In person or online, staggered schedules and hybrid models, different criteria for when to open and when to shut back down — plans are changing "nonstop, which is frustrating for everybody involved," says Jennifer McCormick, who heads the Indiana Department of Education.

For students and staff who attend in person, and their families, contact tracing is key to keeping coronavirus cases down, public health experts say.

But McCormick tells NPR that in particular has been one of the biggest challenges.

"That contact tracing is a beast," she tells Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition. "And in order to manage that and have the people to do it is really hard. And then on the other end of that, you're making calls to families that don't know if it's legit and don't really want to sometimes participate."

McCormick talked with NPR about challenges Indiana is facing as it brings students back to classrooms. Here are excerpts:

Is [opposition to contact tracing] part of the political resistance that we've seen to the basic public health advice here? You call up some people and they say, "I'm not going to participate because this is all bogus. This is all some kind of conspiracy."

Some of that happens, yes. Other [times] when you call a parent and say, "Is your child Susie and her birthday is X, Y, Z?" sometimes you hear a click on the other end of that because you really get into personal information that someone really doesn't know who you are on the other end of that phone. And I don't blame parents. I'm a mother. And I know if someone called me and wanted personal identifying information, regardless of who they said they were, I would be a little reluctant.

And then, yes, we're in Indiana and we still have pockets of Indiana that think [the coronavirus epidemic is] fake and they're not going to wear a mask and they're not going to participate and how dare you call them. So we have all of that happening in Indiana.

Can every school district in this state afford the extra expenses of trying to open safely?

We're trying to open safely, but we're also trying to, for the most part, offer the dual platforms, whether it's remote or on site. And so that gets very expensive. Schools have added additional staffing. PPE is extremely expensive for staff and for students. We have specialized cleaners that we've purchased, the hardware and some of the things that go for remote learning, those costs. So it has been extremely expensive and some districts can absorb that easier than others. Some got more federal assistance with the CARES Act than others. So we're trying ... to get as much flowing through our department to that local district [in need of funds].

Listen to the full audio interview at the link above.

NPR's Ryan Benk and Catherine Whelan produced and edited the audio interview.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The other day, I visited my mom back home again in Indiana. She's a retired teacher. A lot of my relatives are teachers or parents or both, so we talked about reopening schools. Indiana is a kind of test case since many schools there opened relatively early and some have already had to close. The state superintendent of public education is Jennifer McCormick.

JENNIFER MCCORMICK: I've had those calls from superintendents that are like, hey, 80% of my administrators are out - they're sick. Or you know, 50% of my cafeteria staff - or I have seven out of my 30 bus drivers. So it's real.

INSKEEP: And staying open is now a daily struggle to get messy details right - finding substitutes when a teacher gets sick or contact tracing when a student tests positive.

MCCORMICK: That contact tracing is a beast. And to - in order to manage that and have the people to do it is really hard. And then on the other end of that, you know, you're making calls to families that don't know if it's legit and don't really want to sometimes participate.

INSKEEP: Is that part of the political resistance that we've seen to the basic public health advice here? You call up some people, and they say, I'm not going to participate because this is all bogus. This is all some kind of conspiracy.

MCCORMICK: Some of that happens, yes. Others of it - you know, when you call a parent and say, is your child Susie and her birthday is X, Y, Z, sometimes you hear a click on the other end of that 'cause you really get into personal information that someone really doesn't know who you are on the other end of that phone. And I don't blame parents. I'm a mother. And I know if someone called me and wanted personal identifying information, regardless of who they said they were, I would be a little reluctant.

And then, yes, we're in Indiana, and we still have pockets of Indiana that think it's fake. And they're not going to wear a mask, and they're not going to participate. And how dare you call them. So we have all of that happening in Indiana.

INSKEEP: I hear from people in my home high school - Carmel, Ind. - and you get a sense of the anxiety. They were planning to open fully, bring everybody back. Then before they could even open, they had to switch to a 50/50 plan with people coming in half the time. I suppose that could change again. There's still time. How much are schools having to constantly adjust their plans and constantly adjust what they tell parents and students?

MCCORMICK: Yeah, it's nonstop, which is frustrating for everybody involved. And I know parents are having, some of them, some day care issues involved with that. Many of them are trying to get back to work themselves. So there are a lot of moving parts with that. Like I said, it's very frustrating. Many of our districts are offering a dual platform, which is remote or onsite or a hybrid of each of those. And the parent gets to select. But sometimes that choice is taken out of their hands given the health and safety concerns. So it is. It's very, very, very fluid, which is, like I said, very difficult and very expensive.

INSKEEP: Well, because I have relatives in Indiana, believe me, they have questions. And I've heard one question about the very situation you bring up. Some people report being told in their particular school district in various parts of Indiana that remote learning is not an option for them, either send your kid to school or withdraw your kid from school. Is that really happening?

MCCORMICK: It is, but there aren't very many districts that aren't offering multiple platforms. Now, having said that, part of this issue is the supply chain issue that we're having. You know, if I ordered laptops back in April, I'm still waiting on those, and I am being told they won't be in until October. So part of it is an access issue to the hardware and the Internet hotspot devices that we're still waiting on. So part of it's in the control of the schools; some of it's not because of just the sheer nature of everything that's happening.

INSKEEP: Some people will know that a powerful state senator in Indiana sent around a letter to school districts saying, listen; there's this law saying that if the majority of instruction is taking place at home, we're only sending you 85% of your funding. What do you make of that?

MCCORMICK: We sent out information on what we were being signaled from the state leadership as far as they came out publicly and said fully fund it. And then, whammy, here came the letter. It basically said, you know, no, we're looking at a 15% cut, which is extremely - I mean, that is significant for all of our districts, whether they're 100% remote or they have a small percentage that are remote. That is a problem that we were not anticipating at this time.

But we're also getting threats of federal dollars. So we have really a three-layered tier of problems - the federal threat of money, the state threat of money and now we have a career tech ed funding issue that we have - that's been brought to light as far as, if you don't open your doors, you're not getting those moneys.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you at least have the governor of Indiana on your side in trying to fix the state money if you find a way. But there's some resistance to that. How serious is the federal threat to your funding?

MCCORMICK: Well - and I'll go back to the state. I mean, it's one thing to say we're supporting state funding, but we need action. We either have to have an executive order, or he has to call a special session. If not, you are cutting 15% of our funds. From the feds, it is very, very frustrating. You know, we're doing what we can do, but there is always that threat.

INSKEEP: Is this the bottom line for you at the moment? You're in a state that has done better than some others with the coronavirus, but your numbers of cases are rising. And now you are sending the majority of kids back into school.

MCCORMICK: Yeah, we're asking questions as far as - we're also hearing from superintendents that have been left with their local health departments to set their own mitigation thresholds of what dictates when a school opens and closes. And that differs in different parts of our state. And it is getting more and more difficult when people are reluctant to make that decision. And you know, we're educators. We're not physicians. We're not medical folks. We need medical help on this. And so there's more of a outcry for that.

We are watching those numbers. Superintendents are very aware of those numbers. But then here came the threat of, you open your doors, you keep them open or you're going to get 15% reduction at minimum. Unfortunately, we have 41 districts that have already said we cannot do it right now, and they're 100% virtual. Others are, like I said, trying, and many are starting this week. So we will see how that unfolds for our schools that are starting up.

INSKEEP: Jennifer McCormick is the superintendent of public instruction for the state of Indiana. Superintendent McCormick, thanks so much.

MCCORMICK: Thank you. Appreciate the conversation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.