Originally published Nov. 12 in in.chalkbeat.org, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for newsletter here.

Indianapolis health officials ordered K-12 schools Thursday to return to virtual instruction by Nov. 30, canceling in-person instruction until Jan. 15 due to the rise of COVID-19 cases. 

Marion County’s seven-day test positivity rate has doubled in the past month to 10.3%, according to Public Health Department Director Virginia Caine.

Coronavirus cases among school-age children have nearly tripled, she added. Positivity rates have risen to 18% for high school students, 14% for middle school students, and 8% for elementary students. Caine said the positivity rate for elementary students could reach 12% or higher by the end of next week. 

Marion County’s threshold for schools to go remote was a 13% or higher positivity rate. 

“We could keep good control of our schools,” Caine said. “But when your community spread is rising so rapidly, and getting at higher numbers, then it’s not the same safe environment in our schools that we had prior to this.” 

During Thursday’s press conference, Mayor Joe Hogsett announced new restrictions on schools, social gatherings, restaurants, and other businesses. He expressed dismay at the virus’ spread in his city.

“I take absolutely no joy in making these changes,” Hogsett said. “In fact, it’s heartbreaking for me as someone who loves this city and desperately wants to see a speedy recovery from the effects of this pandemic.”

Following the announcement, several Indianapolis school districts announced they were moving to virtual education by Nov. 30. Wayne Township and Washington Township schools will begin virtual learning next week. Indianapolis Public Schools, the largest school district in Indiana, will be going virtual along with Lawrence Township and Warren Township schools the week of Thanksgiving.  

City officials’ decision to close campuses once again disappointed students who enjoyed finally being back in school with their teachers and peers, after last school year ended with remote learning. Being in classrooms in the beginning of this school year, even with COVID-19 precautions, gave students and their families some sense of normalcy while also providing child care for working parents. 

When Steven Thompson told his fourth-grade son Carter about having to go back to learning online, he was bummed. 

“He didn’t like virtual learning,” Thompson said. “It’s not as engaging. He likes going to school. And his learning needs, in my opinion, require that engagement and that face-to-face interaction.” 

Thompson’s son attends Fox Hill Elementary School in Washington Township. The school district, along with Indianapolis Public Schools, started the school year remotely. Students did not start attending classes in person until last month. 

The shift from remote learning to in-person learning and then back to remote learning is taking a toll on Thompson, who now has to let officials at the public health department where he works know that he has to work from home to be with his son. He’ll be setting up a new routine with Carter that could take two to three weeks, judging by how long it took to adjust when classrooms closed back in March. 

“I really hate it because it changes how I have to parent,” Thompson said. “Now, I have to be the mean guy because it’s hard for a kid to understand, ‘Hey, I’m at home, but I’m supposed to be doing school.’ When it’s at home, usually it’s fun and being around your family. It’s not school.” 

He acknowledges that in his job as an IT manager, he has the ability to work from home to direct his son with school work. Many families in Indianapolis, he said, don’t have that opportunity. 

“I’m in a position where I can take the inconveniences and work with them and roll with the punches,” Thompson said. “But there’re so many more people in our local community in Marion County that do not. This presents a lot of equity issues for parents that don’t have the means or the education or support at home.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization committed to covering one of America’s most important stories: the effort to improve schools for all children, especially those who have historically lacked access to a quality education.