The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, September 15, 2020 1:00 am

Youth cases rise as school begins

Officials blame socializing away from buildings

ASHLEY SLOBODA and NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Thousands of Hoosier students have tested positive for COVID-19 since school began, an analysis of statewide data shows.

During a five-month period from early March through the end of July, 6,178 people in the 0-19 age range tested positive for the new coronavirus, according to data from the Indiana State Department of Health. But that number has ballooned in recent weeks as kids returned to K-12 schools and colleges.

From Aug. 1 to Sept. 13 – less than two months – an additional 7,366 youths have tested positive.

Allen County had 326 cases in the lowest age range through July. Since then, the county added 309 cases in less than half that time. About 18% of all of Allen County's cases in the youngest age bracket came during the first 13 days of September.

The age range covers all K-12 students and some college students, along with a small number of children not yet attending school.

“I don't want to see those numbers, but it doesn't necessarily surprise me, because we knew there would be a spike with the reopening of schools,” said Jennifer McCormick, Indiana's superintendent of public instruction. “We're concerned, and I know schools are watching it carefully.”

The State Department of Health is still working to provide a public dashboard on COVID-19 cases in each school building. Some students around the state chose online learning, and school districts have both in-person and blended, or hybrid, models.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box wasn't available Monday for comment but said recently a portion of new positive cases are related to both K-12 and college.

“It has less to do with the going to class, getting your instruction and coming home, and it has everything to do with what you do after hours or on the weekends,” she said in a briefing.

Parties, sleepovers, sports and other gatherings among youth are propelling the numbers, according to officials.

“I can tell you that to date, the vast majority of cases are related to exposures outside the school setting,” said Krista Stockman, spokeswoman for Fort Wayne Community Schools.

She said the district's social distancing and mask requirements “have minimized the number of students and staff who need to be quarantined when there is a positive case and prevented the spread of COVID-19.”

Stockman added that “to our knowledge, we have not had any students seriously ill with COVID-19.”

McCormick said reports statewide indicate mild cases of COVID-19 – and many of those are asymptomatic.

“I think schools are doing an amazing job in really difficult circumstances. It is taking a toll on everyone,” she said of students, parents and staffers. “No one wants the scarlet letter of COVID. Schools are pushed to the max right now.”

Some counties are seeing double-digit increases in the 0-19 age range in recent days. For example, Marion County had 92 new youth cases on Sept. 12. In addition to K-12 schools, there are several college campuses in the county.

Monroe County, home of Indiana University's Bloomington campus, reported 102 new cases in the 0-19 range Sept. 10.

Dr. Matthew Sutter, Allen County's health commissioner, said confirmed coronavirus cases have increased in children and young adults in the county.

“It's impossible to know the exact cause of the increase, but it is likely related to increases in socializing and in testing,” he said. “While we have not seen evidence of frequent transmission within schools, we do see transmission among family members and from social gatherings.”

The county doesn't provide specific numbers of cases within schools for privacy reasons.

Sutter also said COVID-19 is generally a mild disease in children and young adults, and he is not aware of any severe cases at the local level.

“However, COVID-19 spread in children and young adults is still concerning because it contributes to community spread to more vulnerable populations, and the long-term health effects of even mild disease are not yet known,” he said.

When Northwest Allen County Schools began the academic year Aug. 12, district leaders had their eye on one benchmark. “Can we make it to Labor Day?” spokeswoman Lizette Downey said.

The 7,800-student district had as smooth a start as possible, given the circumstances, she said. Students are complying with mask mandates, Downey said. She credited parents for preparing students for that new requirement.

Downey reported no major issues and said NACS hasn't had to make a change like other schools have.

Bishop Dwenger High School shifted from in-person instruction to a blended model Aug. 24 after positive cases were reported.

Half of the students will come to school twice a week while the rest attend virtually at home. The north-side school hopes to avoid a virtual-only setup by switching to this format, according to a letter to families.

Southwest Allen County Schools declined to comment on staff or student health. Spokeswoman Stacey Fleming said the district is offering both traditional, in-class, learning and virtual choices.

“We knew, while developing our Return to School Plan, it would take a collaborative effort to not only return to school this fall but to remain open,” she said. “We are grateful for the ongoing compliance and support we receive.”

At a glance

New cases in area counties (with totals in parentheses):

Adams 2 (222)

Allen 24 (5,642)

DeKalb 7 (411)

Huntington 1 (199)

Kosciusko 7 (1,150)

LaGrange 1 (627)

Noble 4 (854)

Steuben 5 (342)

Wabash 2 (251)

Wells 3 (234)

Whitley 1 (238)

Sources: Indiana State Department of Health, Allen County Department of Health

Subscribe to our newsletters

* indicates required