With no end in sight for the local surge in COVID-19 cases, the Peru School Board, on Monday night, voted to send students home for online learning through mid-January.
The 5-2 vote came during an emergency meeting called by Peru Schools Superintendent Sam Watkins following weeks of increasing cases and absences associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
Board members Tim Comerford and Dr. Gregory Quin voted against Watkins’ recommended schedule changes that won’t see students return to the buildings until Jan. 19.
It was a recommendation that Watkins said he didn’t make lightly, but came after consideration of both “safety and security” of staff and students as well as the “climate and culture” of the corporation.
At least six staff members or teachers in the corporation had taken days off recently, citing health and safety concerns, he said.
In addition, more than 800 students, corporation-wide, were already at home.
That, Watkins explained, was because of a growing list of students whose families, in recent days, had opted to keep them home for online learning. As of Monday night’s meeting that number was 398 students.
“Then you add that to the quarantine, 418 students that are out,” he said.
Those were students working from home because contact-tracing efforts had identified them as having been in “close contact’ with a positive case, requiring that they stay in quarantine for up to 14 days.
There were also more than 20 students who had tested positive for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus and at least 16 staff members. More staff and teachers were also out on quarantine.
None of that, Watkins said, is conducive to learning, and he cited an increasingly difficult struggle in finding substitutes either willing or able to fill those teacher vacancies which he said was further evidence for the need to move from in-person learning.
The recommendation, Watkins told the board, did not come with a directive or recommendation from Miami County Health Officer Dr. Christi Redmon to move students to “a virtual platform.”
Redmon told the Tribune on Tuesday she opposed the move as presented.
“This does no good,” she said, calling the decision “not science based” and not “evidence based.”
Redmon said that Centers for Disease Control and Indiana State Health Department guidelines suggest the safest place for students is within the buildings, following pandemic guidelines and they outline shorter timelines for when buildings need to be closed. Closing schools for lengthy periods, she said, is not recommended by her and leaves students who may be suffering from abuse or depression vulnerable.
The recommendation from Watkins and the subsequent vote from the board comes amid worries that things are going to get worse with the pandemic.
Community wide, Watkins pointed out, cases and deaths in Miami County have more than tripled since early October, when numbers first started ticking up. As of Oct. 2 state officials had identified 446 cases of COVID-19 in the county and attributed four deaths to the virus. On Monday there were 14 deaths identified and 1,551 cases.
Watkins said there were concerns that the virus would continue to surge during the holidays when families might disregard health officials’ recommendations and gather with family in the types of environments where the virus is known to spread.
And that, he explained, was the reasoning for extending the schedule change through mid January.
Though students had initially been expected to return to the buildings on Jan. 4 following the winter break, Watkins said he had been persuaded that allowing a two-week buffer after the new year when out-of-town guests would presumably have returned home, festivities ceased and life returned to a more normal routine would mitigate the chances of another surge in the buildings if students were to return infected just days after those final holiday gatherings.
With Monday’s vote, Peru Schools became the third corporation in the county to move to online learning. Officials at North Miami and Maconaquah sent students home earlier this month.
Students at those schools are expected to return after the Thanksgiving holiday.