Northwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Chris Himsel sent a letter to parents and guardians on Aug. 15 encouraging the voluntary use of masks in compliance with the recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics, Infectious Diseases Society of America, Pediatric Infectious Disease Society and the Indiana Department of Health.
In the letter, Himsel wrote that the levels of COVID-19 spread have been “increasing significantly” in the community. He cited the state’s metric report which shows the classification for Allen County as orange in regards to COVID-19 spread.
“Although board-adopted procedures are currently mask optional, I encourage each parent and guardian to have her/his child(ren) voluntarily wear a mask ... ,” Himsel wrote in the letter. “Healthcare professionals recommend the wearing of a mask even more strongly for individuals who have not been fully vaccinated from SARS-CoV2/COVID.”
Himsel wrote that Indiana’s level of COVID-19 spread is “currently at levels similar to last October.” He cited that the spread among school-aged children is “significantly increasing” throughout the state.
“Indiana children age 19 and younger now comprise nearly 16 percent of Indiana’s COVID cases,” he wrote. “Many school districts that began the school year two or three weeks ago recently shifted to remote learning or re-instated mask mandates because of significant and rapid increases in the number of COVID cases and resulting quarantines.”
Himsel added a list of findings from Pediatricians and public health experts on the effects of wearing a mask:
- increase the likelihood of keeping our schools open for onsite instruction
- decrease the number of interruptions caused by quarantines and illness
- decrease the likelihood of needing to limit attendance at upcoming events
- decrease the chances that the NACS Board of Trustees will need to re-instate mask mandates and other restrictions.
Himsel ended the letter by stating that COVID-19 vaccinations for students have not been mandated by the Indiana General Assembly and that in Indiana, vaccinations for students can only be mandated by the Indiana General Assembly, not school boards.
“Unvaccinated individuals continue to comprise the overwhelming number of those experiencing serious COVID illness,” Himsel wrote. “Each family should consult with her/his family healthcare provider to determine the best course of action for individual family members.”
The NACS school board voted to make masks optional before school started for the 2021-22 academic year.
“Our board has decided to begin the year as mask optional and continue to get information from the Indiana Department of Health, the Allen County Department of Health, the CDC and our local doctors,” Himsel said on Aug. 9 after a school board meeting. “We will continue to consult with them and continue to share it with the board and if the board reaches a decision that it needs to change, they’ll make a change.”
Himsel said if the data and the information the board receives indicates that NACS can remain mask optional, they’ll remain that way.
“I trust that they will continue to look at the information and make decisions that are in the best interest of the kids,” he said. “I do believe they are taking it seriously and they’ve got some caveats in there to take a look at if it becomes necessary.”
He said the most important thing is that the board continues to collect the information and monitor it to continue the lines of communication with all the local health experts that have been advising NACS throughout the entire process.
The data the school board is receiving from the IDH and ACDH is centered around positivity rates, case numbers per 100,000 residents, hospitalizations and vaccination rates.
“All of those come into play in terms of spread that may or may not be within our community,” Himsel said.
If a student does contract COVID-19, NACS will report that to ACDH as required. Once it’s reported, the student will quarantine as required by IDH.
“My job is to think about the worst case scenarios and how we’re going to respond,” Himsel said.
He said he “disagrees with some of the conspiracy theories” that have been brought to him in the past.
“I don’t think it’s a group of people that are trying to change our lives forever,” Himsel said. “I think it’s a group of people that are trying to keep our public safe and trying to get us back to a normal way of life.”
Himsel said he has dealt with people over the past 18 months on both sides of the mask debate.
“The fact that we did not do something that one person has demanded and implored that we do does not mean that we did not listen and they were not heard,” he said. “We still have to follow statutory requirements. We still listen to all of the perspectives and there are few people who have different perspectives who fail to realize there are people with a different perspective.”
Himsel said he has taken all perspectives into consideration to figure out the best course of action.