Education Southern Indiana

Southern Indiana schools are adjusting to an executive order from Gov. Eric Holcomb that eases some quarantine guidelines.

If schools require masks, students and staff who are in close contact with positive COVID-19 cases in school settings no longer have to quarantine, as long as they aren’t experiencing symptoms. The move has already prompted at least one local school district — Silver Creek School Corporation — to implement a mask mandate this week.

But officials from districts that were already requiring masks — including Clarksville Community Schools, Greater Clark County Schools and New Albany Floyd County Schools — say the new guidelines will help keep students in the classroom.

“That’s very good news for a lot of our kids, very good news for their parents and very good news for teachers,” said NAFCS superintendent Brad Snyder.

After the first two weeks of classes last month, nearly 10% of NAFCS students were in quarantine. NAFCS has also had issues with staffing due to the high number of quarantines. Bus routes have been canceled some days because no drivers were available.

The district implemented a color-coded system that requires masks if Floyd County is in the “orange” or “red” zones on the Indiana Department of Health’s COVID-19 map. Masks have been required for about four weeks.

Snyder said the contact tracing process has been “laborious” for administrators, sometimes taking entire days. Schools will still alert parents about close contacts with positive COVID-19 cases, but the decision to quarantine is now up to the parents.

“The choice is up to you,” Snyder said. “You can come and get them and quarantine them, or you can leave them in school. But we simply ask that you monitor symptoms, and if you identify any symptoms, immediately get a test.”

Greater Clark implemented a color-coded mandate like NAFCS. The decision was made after more than 1,000 students and staff were quarantined in the first week of classes. That number has dropped to more than 330, as of last week.

Superintendent Mark Laughner said he’s happy the governor is incentivizing masking in schools.

“Our goal is to teach our kids, and we think the best way to teach our students is for them to be in-person in the classroom,” he said. “So if requiring a mask allowed us to keep our kids in school more often so we could teach in-person, we felt like that was the thing to do.”

Like NAFCS, Greater Clark has struggled with staffing during the pandemic. As a result, some schools have even shifted to eLearning for several days at a time this semester.

Laughner outlined multiple benefits of in-school instruction. Last year, when schools were virtual for long periods of time, standardized testing scores in the district dropped compared to previous years.

“The other thing a lot of people forget about is the social and emotional aspect of school — kids being around their peers, being in a place where they have to follow policies, procedures and there’s a routine,” Laughner said. “…The social and emotional part of being in school is huge, just as big as the academic piece.”

Indiana hasn’t issued a statewide mask mandate for schools. Neither have local governments in Clark or Floyd counties. One attempt to do so by the Floyd County Health Department was challenged by county commissioners, who cited a new state law that prevents guidelines that are more restrictive than the state’s, unless approved by the local governing body.

Instead, school boards were in charge of public health decisions. Districts that chose mask mandates were met with backlash, with many parents and community members protesting at recent school board meetings.

Clarksville Community Schools safety specialist Scott Gardner said the governor’s new executive order takes away some of that pressure.

“It is difficult that a school board has to make this public health decision,” he said. “I think this does give boards assurance, gives them guidance and gives them a leg to stand on if they make this decision for their school corporation.”

For the new guidelines to work, school leaders are asking parents and students to be vigilant when monitoring for symptoms of COVID-19 and to stay home if they don’t feel well. Gardner also encouraged adults to get vaccinated to protect children who aren’t old enough to get the shot.

“We noticed a huge increase in the number of positive cases we have in our elementary-aged students who are not eligible to get the vaccine yet,” he said. “I would just encourage family members and community members that are eligible to get vaccinated. That would really help us out and reduce that spread in the community to protect our younger students who are not eligible.”

More than 6,300 COVID-19 cases were reported in Indiana schools last week, setting a new record.

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.