LAGRANGE — As public school students across the state remain at home as part of Indiana’s attempt to stem the tide of new coronavirus infections, most of LaGrange County’s Amish children are still attending school.
But the men responsible for overseeing local Amish education told LaGrange County Commissioner Larry Miller they are considering shutting those schools down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic that’s sweeping across the nation.
LaGrange County has more than 100 Amish schools, the bulk of those schools scattered around the west side of the county. Those schools, by comparison to LaGrange County three public school systems, are small.
Amish culture is built around family and community, and Amish events sometimes draw crowds numbering in the thousands. That puts them at risk of being able to quickly spread the coronavirus within their community should one member of the community unknowing be exposed to and carry the virus. But Miller said he believes most members of the Amish community are taking the threat presented by COVID-19 seriously.
That’s an opinion that shared by Dr. Daniel Kragt, an Elkhart County physician with an office in Middlebury. The bulk of Kragt’s practice are members of the Elkhart’s and LaGrange counties Amish communities.
Kragt said he’s been cautioning all his patients, Amish and English alike, to pay close attention to the advice of experts on how to stay safe. Kragt said the majority of his patients have been concerned about the coronavirus. A few, he added, still remain skeptical.
“My job to help them realize that is serious and they need to listen to the professionals, not necessarily the politicians. Listen to professionals who have experience with viruses and epidemiology,” Kragt explained.”
Miller said he met Wednesday with several Amish bishops and other high ranking members of the local Amish community. The topics of conversation were wide-ranging, and included discussions about Amish schools, Amish weddings, and Amish funerals. The state now recommends that people avoid events larger than 10 people. Typically, the number of people who attend Amish weddings and Amish funerals far exceed those state guidelines.
“You take a funeral, “ Miller said, “You’re probably talking between 1,000 and 2,000 people that go to the viewing and attend the funeral.”
Amish schools operate differently than public schools, too. While the schools are similar, they operate independently of each other. Each school serves a particular district within the Amish community. On average, they have about 30-35 students, although Miller said there are at least two schools in the county with 50 students each. Two or three teachers teach all subjects, and the students age from six or seven to sixteen. Finally, those schools typically end their school year in the last weeks of April.
Miller said many of the Amish he’s talked about the dangers the coronavirus asked for a little more time to think about and discuss things before they make a final decision. He added that most of the men at Wednesday’s meeting are leaning toward the idea of closing the schools. Miller also said bishops and other senior members of the Amish community agreed that they would abide by any rule that is imposed by the county or the state.
“As of now,” Miller said, “all the stuff that’s come out of the governor’s office is just recommendations, it’s not mandated. The churches and the schools will make their own mind, but I think what I took out of that meeting is they will go along with county and state rules.”
Miller said those at the meeting agreed to recommend that for now Amish funerals and weddings be limited to immediate family only.
Informal neighborhood gatherings also will be curtailed. “They all agreed that’s something that just doesn’t have to happen,” Miller said.