While discussing the mask mandate at the Northwest Allen County Schools Board of Trustees work session on April 21, board member Steve Bartkus made a controversial statement that people were not willing to push under the rug.

At the meeting, Bartkus commented on sexuality and whether it’s a choice. He compared that to mask-wearing.

His words were:

“People have a choice to be gay or straight, right? Some of the craziest things against God’s rules on this earth. We have a choice now. When do the parents get a choice here and the children get a choice whether this is good for their family or their personal well-being? Because there’s a lot of families that are psychologically affected with this, physically affected with this. I’m not saying masks don’t work. They do for some cases.”

NACS Chief Communications Officer Lizette Downey released a statement on Sunday, April 25, from three school board members — Ron Felger, Liz Hathaway and Kristi Schlatter — who wanted to clarify they disagree with those comments.

The statement reads:

“As individual members of the Board of School Trustees of Northwest Allen County Schools, the undersigned stand firmly by our mission to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for all learners. This is true regardless of race, religion, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, native language or any other protected characteristic. We apologize for the alienating comments made by one school board member at the work session on April 21st. The opinions shared by one board member reflect only his own views and opinions. They are not shared by us individually and should not be interpreted as those of the board as a whole. We remain committed to equally serve all students, staff and the entire NACS community each and every day.”

As a result of Bartkus’ comment, people in the community are taking offense and taking a stand. Community members organized two petitions on the website Change.org regarding NACS. One supports students and staff to continue to wear masks until the end of the school year. The goal as of April 28 is for 500 signatures. So far, 223 people have signed.

The other petition demands that Bartkus is either removed from the board or that he turns in his resignation.

The organizer, Faith Shown, wrote this in the description of the petition:

“After Mr. Bartkus’ comments during the school board meeting on Wednesday, April 21st, it is imperative that he either be removed or resign from public office. The notion that being gay is as much of a choice as wearing a mask or not is both wrong and unprofessional. With many kids and families in the school district who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, these statements are harmful to their learning environment. It is our job as a community to ensure that public officials represent the people, and it is clear that he does not and should not.”

As of April 28, 2,744 people have signed.

The next school board meeting was held April 26 and was just under three hours long. A NACS parent, Sarah Bridgwater, offered masks with a rainbow design on them to support the LGBTQ+ people in the district. Superintendent Christopher Himsel read a resolution highlighting the events of the COVID-19 protocols from the 2020-2021 school year with proposed precautions for the 2021-2022 school year.

The resolution said that the COVID-19 precautions in place at the schools currently would extend into the first semester of the 2021-2022 school year. Students in grades 3-12 will be required to wear masks when social distancing of at least 6 feet is not practical. It encourages children ages 2-8 to wear masks. Himsel would be allowed to update plans as needed to comply with any local, state or nationwide mandates that may occur.

Himsel would be allowed to adjust aspects of the reopening plan based on local or state conditions determined by the governor, the Indiana Department of Health or the Allen County Department of Health. These changes would have to be supported by guidance from the CDC or the American Academy of Pediatrics. Still, the plans must be reviewed and supported by the Allen County Department of Health.

The resolution passed in a 3-2 vote, with board President Kent Somers and Bartkus opposing.

This meeting was recorded and added to the NACS YouTube channel. As of April 28, 1,060 people had viewed the video.

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