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You Asked How Schools Will Address Equity Issues, Reopening? We’ve Got Answers

Lauren Chapman
IPB News

Members of the Indiana 2020 Two-Way asked us how schools – whether in-person, virtual, or a combination of the two – are addressing lingering equity issues related to race, health, technology, and special education. To join the Indiana 2020 Two-Way text “elections” to 73224. 

So, Indiana Public Broadcasting and All IN went to work to answer some of those questions by talking to Patricia Payne, director of equity and inclusion at Indianapolis Public Schools; Elizabeth Walters, principal of Beech Grove High School; and Andrea Tanner, president of the Indiana Association of School Nurses. 

Indianapolis Public Schools recently adopted a new policy, the Racial Equity Mindset, Commitment & Action policy, to address racial bias in schools. 

Payne said the policy is meant to address the ongoing issues where student outcomes may be “predicted by race or ethnicity.” 

Now, any teacher or staff member in IPS is required to take two eight-hour racial equity trainings. But Payne also said this kind of work has been done by the school district since 1979, when teachers demanded the inclusion of Black history in curriculum.

“We decided to start a movement then, and that movement has grown,” she said.

Already, more than 3,000 staff members have gone through the training from the Racial Equity Institute in North Carolina. Payne said the two-day training focuses on racism to help address all other forms of bias. 

“So we help people understand why people are poor. They don’t want to be poor,” she said. “They’re poor because of laws and policies that were put in place long, long ago.”

Payne said the training is designed to help teachers better understand the context their students of color live in. And to challenge their previously held beliefs.

“We teach teachers the truth, that’s what we do,” she said. “We do this so the low expectations can be expelled and high expectations can be embraced.”

Almost 75 percent of teachers in IPS are White.

How are school nurses preparing to return to school across the state? Are there plans for spikes of COVID-19 cases in school districts?

Tanner, president of the Indiana Association of School Nurses, said school nurses across the state are already tracking positive cases of COVID-19 among students and staff, and working to do contact tracing.

She said, among all of that, school nurses are still doing normal things – like making sure students with diabetes or seizures still have what they need, students are up to date for immunizations, and doing vision screenings.

But what if a school district starts to see a real spike in COVID-19 cases? When do they shut down?

“I think every school district in the state has a little bit different plan as to how we’re going to handle that,” Tanner said. “And a lot of that is guided by our local health department. Our county health officer really calls a lot of the shots in how schools are handling those situations.”

What do you think about when you think about equity, from the perspective of a school nurse? 

Tanner said, it’s both academic and health equity – the two go hand-in-hand.

“There’s even a research team that’s identified that the number of times a student visits the health office can be a predictor of how well they’re going to perform on standardized tests,” she said. “Because their health and their academic performance are so closely intertwined.”

These social determinants can dictate the rest of a student’s life too. An estimated 70 percent of health is determined by environment and behavior, not medical care. Students who don’t graduate high school live six to nine years fewer than their graduating counterparts.

“From my perspective as a school nurse, what I fear I will see as we return to school in a couple of weeks, is that COVID will shine a light on a lot of inequities that have always been there, but is going to be much more evident now,” Tanner said.

She said even in the short term, there may be a lot of barriers for students and their families to access care – like being able to leave work, having health insurance to see a medical provider, or even having a vehicle to go to a drive-thru testing site.

Tanner said to navigate these barriers with families, it’s going to require a lot of the resources within a school – like counselors, social workers and even school resource officers.

Will the role of school nurses change because of COVID-19?

Tanner said the role doesn’t really change – but it will certainly look different. For example, schools have been provided guidance to create a separate isolation area for students who may be showing symptoms of COVID-19 away from students who might be in a health office to take daily medication or get an assessment for an injury.

But the daily work of a school nurse will be mostly the same, just amplified to a whole new level this year. 

However, some of the school nurses in Indiana cover 5,000 to 6,000 students by themselves.

“In those situations, I have no idea how their schools are going to keep up with the numbers of students who will need assessed, the number of families that will need communicated with,” Tanner said. “A lot of us do rely on non-nurse personnel to assist us, but there are certain things you can’t delegate to non-nurse personnel.”

She said a lot of schools will suffer if they don’t have a full-time nurse, all day, every day. But Tanner said school districts and health care systems developing partnerships might be a way to help address that – using telehealth resources to assess students for COVID-19 symptoms.

How much of a challenge is basic communication? What needs to go right for things to go smoothly?

Tanner said, communication needs to go both ways: schools need to be open and transparent with parents about their protocols, and parents need to overly communicate when there are possible COVID-19 exposures outside of school. 

“More than likely, I’m going to need to call just about every parent at some point, I’m guessing,” she said. 

Tanner said school nurses have been asked by the Indiana State Department of Health to assist with contact tracing: everything from where students sit on the bus to where they sit in class. 

“It’s going to be a really, really cumbersome task for school nurses, school health employees and school administrators all working on that together,” she said.

What does Beech Grove’s reopening plan look like?

Walters, the Beech Grove High School principal, said the school district is committed to reopening on time – but virtually for the first seven school days – on July 30. She said the virtual instruction was important to give teachers and students time to prepare themselves to feel safe and comfortable.

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Grades K-6 will be back in-person full time, but grade 7-12 are doing a hybrid model.

“We made that decision really specific to a lot of the guidelines that we’re getting out of the CDC and Marion County,” Walters said.

Because the younger students move through their day naturally as a single cohort, they’re able to follow the guidance the state released on July 22

She said, however, older students are far different. Grades 7-12 are on block schedules – eight periods over the course of two days – which means they don’t move as a single class or cohort. To help with social distancing, half of the building will attend school in-person on Monday and Tuesday and the other half on Thursday and Friday.

But, 20 percent of middle school and high school students selected to remain on e-learning full time.

“And then we will commit those Wednesdays for our teachers to really utilize that time in a virtual space,” she said. “To touch base with students who are at home 100 percent of the time, but also provide some of the extra attention and support to the students that they’re only seeing now once a week in class.”

Walters said she has a lot of flexibility because of the size of Beech Grove Schools – while they are on the southwest side of Indianapolis, they serve 3,000 students compared to the nearly 32,000 Indianapolis Public Schools serve.

The school district prepared for a blended model fairly early on – while still hoping to return all students to in-person classes in the fall semester.

How did parents and teachers react to the blended schedule for older students?

Walters said parents fall on a wide spectrum for returning to in-person classes: there are a lot of parents who would love to see their students back, full-time in the classroom, and there are a lot of parents who are fearful of students returning to school buildings.

“It really meets people in that middle ground: to suggest that based on what we’re able to do with PPE and our processes with cohorting the students on Monday and Tuesday, and separating them in the middle of the week, we’re really able … to address some of those concerns,” Walters said. “And parents and students that really struggle with that idea for nine weeks can really just see how it works, ease into that, and see where we’re at in October.”

She said teachers have just as wide of a reaction to the changes. Educators are now rethinking how instruction and assessment are different with the model.

“But there is, by and large, a lot of support because that shift in that model is really about safety,” she said. “It’s about safety for our staff, about safety for our teachers in the classroom and about safety for our students.”

Walters also said the district has done trainings with teachers to help them prepare – which she said they’ve taken in stride to try and meet the challenges from COVID-19.

How do schools account for students that don’t have the technology they need at home to get an education?

Walters said that conversation started in March. 

“We sent our students home on Thursday, not realizing that we would not see them the next day and not see them for the rest of the semester,” she said.

Walters said the school district spent a lot of time gathering funding to provide support and access for students who would struggle with at-home learning. Even as they developed the blended model, they wanted to make sure students who wanted to stay home could do so – without having to worry about access.

To accomplish this, the district connected students with MiFi devices – essentially a wireless hotspot device – to give students internet access. 

In addition to technology, Walters said the district has also focused on communicating with parents about resources that are available to them.

But she said there could always be more help.

A lot of the systemic inequities Payne pointed to earlier in the conversation are things Beech Grove students are facing. Even smaller burdens – like internet access – could be a huge relief for students and families.

The IPS school board recently passed a Black Lives Matter resolution. What does it mean?

Payne said it not only outlined steps to break down systemic racism, but it is also an acknowledgement of the school board’s history of supporting that systemic racism. 

“In my 58 years of being with IPS, I must say, I’ve rarely seen a board and a superintendent that were so in sync in any one subject like they are on racial equity for our students and our entire school district,” Payne said. “So I’m very, very proud of them, and very happy to be a part of the Indianapolis Public Schools.” 

She said, while some may criticize resolutions similar to this as just gestures, the school district has already begun the work of turning it into action. Every school has a school equity team in addition to the district equity team. 

In her role as the director of equity and inclusion, she’s having regular conversations with principals to help them and their teachers address racism and unconscious bias.

And schools are now disaggregating their data so they can see which students are performing lowest and be critical of what aspects of their education are putting them there.

“When students come out of the womb as brilliant, but the longer they’re in school something happens, we need to be finding out why this is happening,” Payne said.

What separates good virtual learning from bad virtual learning?

Walters said that’s a bit of a rabbit hole to jump down, but at the end, it’s focused on the student outcome. 

“And oftentimes, what students are doing in conjunction with the feedback that the teacher can provide is what really creates those high level positive outcomes for students,” she said.

And that can be done in a virtual environment, Walters said.

Contact Lauren at or follow her on Twitter at @laurenechapman_.