Indiana officials maintain it’s ‘safe’ for schools to reopen

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Gov. Eric Holcomb and other state officials defended brick-and-mortar school re-openings Wednesday despite mounting reports of students and education staff testing positive for the coronavirus since returning to school statewide.

With no state mandates for if or how schools should reopen — or benchmarks for what would require them to shut back down as confirmed cases of the virus increase — the Republican governor re-emphasized “confidence” in local leaders to decide what’s best for their districts.

Dr. Kristina Box, the state health commissioner, added that she “continue(s) to believe that our schools can safely reopen.” She cited improved testing and hospital capacity as helpful safeguards, along with wearing masks, hand-washing and social distancing. She also stressed the importance of staying home when sick or awaiting test results, noting that the best way to prevent a spread is “for everyone to do their part and know when to stay home.”

“Having a case of COVID at a school should not be a cause for panic or a reason to close. It’s a reason to take action to prevent an outbreak,” Box said. “But this does not mean that our schools will be free of COVID.”

When it comes to transparency about positive coronavirus cases within schools, Box said she supports releasing data in a dashboard format, similar to what the state does for nursing homes. She wouldn’t commit to releasing that information, however, due to concerns about violating privacy laws.

ABSENTEE VOTING

After two former Indiana lieutenant governors called for Holcomb to expand mail-in voting as the coronavirus pandemic continues, the governor also maintained Wednesday that in-person voting for the November election is safe.

“Folks need to understand that it is safe to vote,” he said. “There are a lot of people out and about … they’re doing it safely, and we can vote safely in person, as well.”

Holcomb shot down claims that pressure from President Donald Trump or concerns about voter fraud are holding him back from expanding voting options.

Instead, Holcomb said that before deciding otherwise, he wants to make sure that local election offices can handle the increased volume of mail-in ballots they would receive and that election results would not be delayed if all Hoosiers are given the option to vote by mail for the General Election. He added that he’s also waiting for a federal judge to issue an opinion on a lawsuit filed in April, which argues that the state’s election law allowing some — but not all — registered voters to vote by mail violates the Constitution. He anticipates the decision will come down around Labor Day.

LATEST VIRUS SPREAD

The state health department on Wednesday added 12 more COVID-19 fatalities to the state’s death toll, raising it to 2,805 since mid-March. Box said there has been a slight increase in COVID-19 patients needing ventilators and ICU beds and the state continues to see hospitalizations increase.

Last week, Holcomb announced that statewide limits including crowd sizes for restaurants, bars and public events would remain in effect until Aug. 27 to encourage compliance with safety measures amid continued concerns about recent growth in the state’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The governor lifted the state’s stay-at-home order and began easing business restrictions in early May, but he’s delayed the final lifting of crowd limits for the past month.

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Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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