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

Charo Woodcock cleans a classroom at McClelland Elementary School in June in Indianapolis. Students across Indiana are already back in school in a mix of in-person and online instruction.
Charo Woodcock cleans a classroom at McClelland Elementary School in June in Indianapolis. Students across Indiana are already back in school in a mix of in-person and online instruction.

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.