Despite rising numbers of positive COVID-19 cases and quarantines, the East Allen County Schools Board of Trustees voted against mandating masks in its buildings with a 4-3 vote.

After the vote, one board member was so upset they said they were ashamed of how it played out.

The Thursday meeting lasted approximately two hours. More than 20 people spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, lasting about one hour and 10 minutes. Most of those speakers spoke against masking. Three students spoke, and some said that they would not wear maska, opting to be sent home instead. Nearly 200 people watched the meeting on Zoom.

In the proposed update to the Back-to-school Plan, everyone in all EACS buildings would need to wear masks through Oct. 14 at midnight. Students would not have been required to quarantine if they were near a person who tested positive. They would just need to self-monitor for symptoms. All visitors would have been required to wear face coverings, regardless of vaccination status.

The decision did not come easily, as the conversation around this topic lasted about 40 minutes.

Superintendent Marilyn Hissong reported that in total, since the beginning of the school year, there have been 400 positive cases and 2,305 people needed to quarantine.

Staff and faculty COVID-related numbers were also discussed. According to Hissong, in the first week of school, there were 11 positive cases and 15 people needing to quarantine. In the second week, there were 13 positive cases and 10 people quarantining. In the third week, 22 people tested positives, and 14 people were quarantined.

“Every Friday, I do post to the board the numbers,” Hissong said. “The first week that we were taking numbers, we had 56 positive cases. The week of 8/27, we had 147. And then, this past week, which was 9/3 and a holiday, we had 197.”

When asked how many quarantines were reported, Hissong revealed that 426 people were required to quarantine in the first week of school. The week of Aug. 27, 964 needed to quarantine, and the third week of school, the number was 855. Junior high and high school students are testing positive more than younger students, according to Hissong.

Board President Todd Buckmaster asked how these numbers compared with last year. Hissong said they are competing against a different variant of the virus, so it is slightly different.

“Last year, we did not see the number of quarantined students coming in with positivity,” Hissong said. “They would go in quarantine and, then they would return and, we wouldn’t have positive cases. As of right now, we have 59 students who were quarantined that did become positive during that quarantine period.”

She also said that another difference is that all of the students are back in the classroom this year.

These numbers are required to be reported per Indiana code.

Board member Paulette Nellems feels the district should follow the guidance from organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Allen County Health Department.

But board member Ron Turpin was on the opposite side of the debate.

“I also would say that if you look at the 2,300 students we’ve had quarantine, if I heard your numbers correctly, only 2.5% of them were COVID-positive,” Turpin said. “So one could argue that we’re going way overboard. I look at this and I think that we are damaging our children by this. This is where we absolutely need to realize what we are dealing with.”

Turpin commended the staff on how he feels they are doing a great job through this pandemic, but he said that if “you look at the science in the beginning, it said that COVID wasn’t a thing.”

“Then it was a thing and, if we hunkered down for two weeks, it’s all over,” Turpin said. “Well, two weeks turned into months, we destroyed our economy, and still COVID is with us.”

He explained how the preventive measures have changed throughout the pandemic and questioned whether anyone truly knows what to do to prevent the spread. Turpin said all of the information he stated was from Dr. Anthony Fauci, whom he called “the God of COVID.”

Turpin said he is not against the vaccine or masks — he said he chose to get vaccinated. He felt like it was the right thing for him to do, but he believed people have a choice, and he respects that choice.

“I am not anti-mask, but I do not believe that it is the miracle virus-stopper that we believe it is and that we are being told it is,” Turpin said. “How do we know that? We went an entire school year last year with masks on our children and on our faculty, and COVID is still with us. It has not gone away.”

Nellems pushed back

“We still had a lot of students in our buildings, and the ones that were in our buildings were masked, and we didn’t have a lot of cases,” Nellems said. “What do we attribute that to? What do you think happened that last year, we had our mask mandate, we didn’t have all of the quarantines that we are having now. We didn’t have a lot of positivity like we are having now. It may not be affecting our children, but it’s certainly affecting our staff. Help me understand what we are attributing the increase to now?”

Turpin responded that he feels COVID will be with us forever and is not going away.

“It’s here, but the difference makers between this year and last year is that we have a vaccine now,” Turpin said. “For those people who have medical conditions that want to get the vaccine, they can. And so, what does that do? It gives me the assurance that if I do get COVID, and I can, the vaccine isn’t going to stop it, the likelihood that I am going to go to the hospital is much less.”

Nellems countered that not everyone will get the vaccine or is old enough to get it. She also explained how COVID has affected her personally.

“You’re right, it will never go anywhere,” Nellems said. “If you are attacking masks, if you are attacking the vaccine, we are going to be in the same place, and people are dying. I went to two funerals this weekend. People are dying.”

Nellems feels that if people look at the data and leave personal feelings out of the discussion, people would see that there has been a significant increase in staff and children being infected.

“If we don’t have the staff to teach our kids, they won’t be in school anyway, and we won’t have to worry about masks,” Nellems said.

Turpin explained what he would like to happen.

“I want to get rid of the masks and the quarantines both and move on,” Turpin said.

He said he spoke to students, and they reported how difficult it is to learn and socialize with masks on.

At this point, Buckmaster interjected to explain how he felt.

“We should try to appreciate the situation we’re in,” Buckmaster said. “This is not something we ever signed up for or ever thought we would be making medical decisions. We do not take this lightly at all.”

Board member Tim Hines said this conversation will happen again because this virus is not going away.

“We need to collectively figure out how we are going to get through this that is in the best interest of our kids,” Hines said. “I think part of this, and I think this is a perfect example over here, there is not a definitive answer as to what the right thing to do is. What is the right thing for education?”

He said they are in this to help kids, but lately, most of the board’s discussions have been COVID-related instead. He feels that is “pathetic.”

As a single parent, board member Jenny Blackburn said she wants her children to stay in school because they thrive in that environment and quarantining her children was difficult since she has to work.

“I think we need to do what we can to keep our kids in the buildings with our teachers,” Blackburn said.

Board member Steve Screeton, as a former teacher, agreed that children must be in school to learn at their best.

“As a former teacher, I know the importance of students to be face-to-face,” Screeton said. “It’s so vital. I’ve spent time with my grandchildren as they were in quarantine and as they were in remote learning. I struggled with them, and I taught elementary school for 34 years.”

In a 4-3 vote against the proposed revised plan, Hines, Turpin, Gayle Etzler and Buckmaster voted in the majority, with Blackburn, Screeton and Nellems voting for the monthlong mask mandate.

Nellems was upset after the vote.

“What a shame,” Nellems said. “I am ashamed. It is absolutely unfair to these kids.”

Once the vote was complete, people could hear cheering outside from those against the mask mandate.

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