Each of Allen County's four public school districts announced closures Friday because of COVID-19, marking the first major disruption of local services as part of the new coronavirus pandemic that has left more than 137,000 sickened worldwide.
Several parochial schools and public school districts in surrounding counties followed suit, and the moves likely will lead to ripple effects for employers, child care operations and thousands of area families.
“We do understand the magnitude of this on our families,” said Chris Himsel, superintendent of Northwest Allen County Schools, where nearly 8,000 students and about 460 teachers are affected. “But this is what's best in the long term for our community.”
He and leaders of East Allen County Schools, Fort Wayne Community Schools and Southwest Allen County Schools made the announcements in an afternoon news conference at Grand Wayne Center. Each cited efforts by Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan to educate them about working to slow the spread of the virus, and each said the decision to close was difficult.
But the decision was theirs, Himsel said, and did not occur as a result of a recommendation from McMahan.
Classes and other school activities are canceled until at least April 13, when EACS, FWCS, NACS and SACS hope to reopen.
The Indiana State Department of Health had identified 12 confirmed cases of COVID-19, as of late Friday afternoon. None of those are in Allen County, though McMahan and other public health experts have acknowledged the virus is likely here but not diagnosed.
A patient who tested positive in Noble County had visited a Fort Wayne walk-in clinic before being diagnosed, and the Allen County Health Department said this week a patient visited the Home & Garden Show at Memorial Coliseum in February. The person who was at the Coliseum was diagnosed after the visit.
While school closures will affect many families in Allen County, the biggest impact comes from Fort Wayne Community Schools – the state's largest public school district with nearly 30,000 students, according to Indiana Department of Education records.
Charles Cammack Jr., FWCS chief operations officer, acknowledged many of the district's students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and said efforts are underway to establish a system to provide meals to those who need them. FWCS – which does not send computers or tablets home with students – also will work to offer some type of educational programming, though specifics now are unclear.
Cammack said staff will work Monday through Wednesday next week to discuss options.
“We don't consider this to be a holiday,” he said. “We will have some form of instruction.”
Noah Smith, who helps run a popular Facebook group dedicated to schools and education, said he already has heard from parents worried about educational and extracurricular opportunities for their children.
The worries are understandable, Smith said, but he understands the districts' decisions.
EACS, NACS and SACS will implement e-learning days. They also will distribute food, and information about that will be posted to their respective websites.
“We've got more to do,” SACS Superintendent Phil Downs said. “We're going to be busting our tails to make sure this is working well for everyone.”
Announcements of the closures came three hours after a news conference called by Mayor Tom Henry, who urged residents to take precautions including handwashing and social distancing – keeping at least 6 feet apart from others.
Henry announced restrictions on domestic and international travel for city employees as the virus spreads, and officials will consider other ways to combat the pathogen. Those measures might include limiting how many people can visit the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo – which opens April 18 – at one time.
Limits on the number of people who can view public meetings also will be considered. Henry suggested placing TV monitors outside meeting rooms as a way to keep proceedings open to the public but limit the number of attendees inside the rooms.
The regularly scheduled City Council meeting for this coming Tuesday was canceled, and the city's Parks Department canceled events March Sunday through Tuesday at Promenade Park.
“There will be some difficult situations that come about as a result of this virus,” Henry said.
McMahan, who spoke during both gatherings, said efforts to close schools, cancel events and change how the city operates are difficult but necessary to ensure COVID-19 does not spread rapidly. That means hospitals won't be overwhelmed, she said.
“At some point, more aggressive measures may need to be taken,” McMahan said. “Things may look differently. That's just the way it is.”
Many area schools announced they will close because of the new coronavirus. This list is not exhaustive, and parents of students should check the websites of their schools for the latest information.
• Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend schools, including Bishop Dwenger and Bishop Luers high schools, for at least three weeks
• Concordia Lutheran high and elementary schools will return to school April 14
• Huntington County Community Schools through April 10