Students in Greater Clark County Schools (GCCS) return to the classroom Wednesday, while cases of coronavirus in the state and the county continue to rise. GCCS interim superintendent Mark Laughner said the district has been working with the local health department on the reopening plan.

“We feel like we have a strong plan that will protect staff and students,” Laughner told WFPL News on Monday.

The district’s plan calls for social distancing to the extent possible in classrooms. Students in grades three and up will be required to wear masks when social distancing is not possible, per Gov. Eric Holcomb’s executive order. Mask-wearing in younger students is highly recommended, but not required. In addition, the district is offering online instruction for any family that does not feel comfortable sending their child in person.

Coronavirus cases are increasing in Indiana, and in Clark County. Statewide, the 7-day average went from 351 new cases a day on June 22, to 819 new cases a day on July 26. The state’s overall test-positive rate is 8.9% and the positive test rate moving average is around 6.9%, both well over the 5% rate at which White House and CDC guidance recommends rolling back reopening. In Clark County, the health department is reporting an average of 15 new cases a day, up from five cases a day on June 22. The county’s overall test positive rate is 8.7%.

Laughner acknowledges there has been a rise in cases, but he believes the school system can adapt.

“If we open and we see even more of an uptick in certain areas, then we will adjust accordingly,” he said.

Teacher Concerns

But some school staff do not believe the guidelines are enough to protect them from contracting COVID-19.

“I’m extremely concerned about it,” Greater Clark Education Association president Mark Felix said. “I know for a fact some [teachers and staff] are going to get it.”

COVID-19 can be deadly, especially to people over the age of 65 and people with certain underlying health conditions, including diabetes, heart and lung disease. The virus has killed 2,709 people in Indiana, including 45 people in Clark County, according to the state. Nationwide, nearly 146,000 people have died of COVID-19 since February, according to the CDC.

“I frankly feel that we’re in a rush,” Felix said. “I know parents want to get back to work. I know they do.”

According to the district, 68% of parents surveyed in July said they wanted to send their child to school in-person. Felix said because of school choice initiatives in Indiana, the district faces extra pressure to respond to parent desires. Parents who are unhappy with GCCS’s response can enroll their children in another district, private voucher school, or charter school. That would mean an enrollment loss for GCCS, and a drop in funding.

Laughner acknowledged that keeping enrollment up was one of the main priorities in the district’s reopening plan.

“But at the same time, if we infect a lot of teachers, we won’t have school anyway,” Felix said.

Already, Felix notes, Jeffersonville High School has had to push its start date back by a week, because one teacher tested positive and several others are in quarantine. Laughner said the teacher who tested positive had contact with several other teachers in the high school building while making preparations for the start of the year.

Both Laughner and Felix agree that staffing will be a challenge throughout the year as teachers and other employees, such as bus drivers, are asked to quarantine. Meanwhile substitutes, who tend to be older retired teachers, will be harder to come by as they eschew the risk of returning to the classroom. Laughner anticipates schools will have intermittent closures throughout the year as a result.

“I think frankly, that will be the new normal for a while,” Laughner said. “We’ll have individual schools close down doing e-learning for certain periods of time because of potential exposures and quarantines.”

Felix said teachers also have concerns about managing virtual instruction, and want more time for training before the school year begins. Some high school teachers will have both in-person and remote students.

Indiana state law does not allow the teachers’ union to strike. Felix has sent letters to school board members, and the superintendent, asking them to reconsider the start of the year.

Reached for comment, one GCCS board member, Bill Hawkins, said he believes fears about the deadliness of COVID-19 are overblown, and that states are inflating their death tolls with deaths that are not truly caused by the virus, such as people who had COVID-19, but died in a car accident.

Public health experts say this is not the case, and that in fact, states are likely under-reporting the number of deaths caused by COVID-19, especially given the limited testing in the early months of the pandemic.

Kentucky’s public health commissioner Steven Stack has responded to such claims publicly, explaining that the state separates out deaths in which coronavirus was determined not to be the cause.

Laughner said he hears employee’s concerns, but that he’s following the advice of county health experts.

“If they want us to adjust, then we’re going to adjust quickly,” he said.

The first day of school for Clark County students is on Wednesday, July 29. Neighboring New-Albany Floyd County Schools has already opted to push the start date back two weeks, to August 12

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.