The Northwest Allen County Schools Board of Trustees voted 3-2 on Oct. 13 to continue the mask mandate until Dec. 18.
Vice President Elizabeth Hathaway, Secretary Kristi Schlatter and board members Ronald Felger voted to continue the mandate. President Kent Somers and board member Steve Bartkus voted to discontinue the mandate.
Schlatter made the motion to extend the mandate with a second by Hathaway. Bartkus suggested discontinuing the mandate for two weeks to see how cases move.
“This mask thing is going to go on and on and on,” Bartkus said. “People have to get back to their lives and their freedoms. We have to move on from this. … These kids need to get back to their lives.”
NACS Superintendent Chris Himsel said before Labor Day, which consisted of 18 school days, 1,290 students were absent from onsite learning because of COVID-19 or quarantine. As of 4 p.m. on Oct. 13, Himsel said since Labor Day, consisting of 27 school days, 201 students have been absent from school because of COVID-19 or quarantine.
Himsel said an estimated 900 students would have been quarantined if the school system were still mask optional. He said the schools went from 4.5-5 percent of students absent because of COVID-19 related reasons to less than 1 percent.
Bartkus said teachers have been fired or forced to resign since the new mandate was set in place. Himsel said that is not the case. According to Himsel, an instructional assistant resigned because she did not feel she could adequately do her duties with the policy in place.
According to Bartkus, students have been sent home from school for not abiding by the six feet apart rule but Himsel said that has not been the case since the mandate was reinstated.
Felger said the board would have to “pick your poison” on the matter.
“Either we have to mask up or have more quarantines and go virtual,” Felger said. “I personally think we don’t have much of an option on this vote.”
Hathaway said keeping the mask mandate in place allows students to stay in school.
“[The mandate] keeps the kids in the classroom and it’s the most important place for them to be,” Hathaway said.
Schlatter was in agreement, saying students will “lose in person learning experiences” and are isolated at home.
Bartkus said he feels teachers are “looking for cases” and trying to “find a problem” with an example of teachers “running students down when they hear a sneeze or sniffle.”
In response to Bartkus’ statement, Himsel said that is a “falsehood” and that he has not observed this when he has been in schools.
Himsel said the Allen County Department of Health determines who is quarantined after the school system converses with them and has affirmed that no COVID-19 tests have not been given within the NACS schools. When a student COVID-19 case is confirmed, a seating chart is given to the Department of Health and quarantines are determined from there.
The Indiana Department of Health updated its quarantine procedures on Sept. 1:
- Universal indoor masking situations result in close contacts within three feet of a person testing positive for SARS-CoV2/COVID-19 needing to self-monitor but no quarantines.
- Indoor situations without universal masking result in quarantining all close contacts within six feet of a person testing positive for SARS-CoV2/COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more.
Somers asked Attorney Mark Scudder what would happen if the board voted on a third option. Scudder said it would be possible the IDH would sue the school board and they would risk having funding cut.
Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb has left it up to the school boards’ discretion of which direction they want to take between the two options.
“It just feels like we are doing everything we can to avoid making this work,” Somers said. “Kids should be in school. We’re living in fear, and continuing to live in fear, on the basis of ‘what if.’”
Bartkus said the mask mandate conversations have “created a major division in the community” and it has turned into a “political fight.”
“Letting this continue is like a cancer on the community,” he said. “Somebody is pushing the envelope with the quarantines.”
The mask mandate is set to expire at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 18. All persons on NACS property or at NACS activities are required to wear a mask unless:
- They are six feet or more apart from all persons;
- They are outside;
- They are engaged in high-exertion activities such as physical activities implemented during physical education classes, sports or marching band;
- They are eating or drinking;
- They are covered by any other exception required by federal or state law.
NACS began the 2021-22 school year as mask optional. According to Himsel, the numbers during the first week of school, Aug. 23-29, were higher than any of the recorded months during the 2020-21 school year.
The board met virtually during the Oct. 13 meeting in accordance with the current guidelines set in place. There has been no word yet on if the board will continue the virtual meetings.