Even before new tightened recommendations were released, many Indiana schools were choosing to go against federal guidance on masks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially recommended masks in schools for anyone not vaccinated. That would be every student younger than 12 – they aren't eligible – and many of those 12 and older.
But school district after school district announced policies that allow parents and students to decide whether they would be worn in the classroom.
As of Wednesday, East Allen County Schools and Northwest Allen County Schools used “mask optional” language while Fort Wayne Community Schools' and Southwest Allen County Schools' wording recommended and encouraged mask-wearing.
“We are not using the word optional for unvaccinated because we want to be clear that we do think those who are not vaccinated should wear a mask,” FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.
The exception is on school buses, where masks are required by federal mandate.
Richelle Rush, a FWCS bus driver, asked the school board Monday about the inconsistent rules. She said it's a safety issue.
“Why are we not doing it in the school?” Rush said. “The virus doesn't know to stop at the door.”
Gov. Eric Holcomb set a statewide mandate for masks in schools last year. It expired June 30, and a new executive order says “all public and private K-12 educational institutions will be responsible for implementing whatever measures and restrictions deemed necessary and prudent to address the impact and spread of COVID-19.”
It also says “educational governing bodies are encouraged to follow CDC guidance.”
When asked this week if he is concerned or disappointed in some schools' approach to masks, Holcomb said “I would recommend taking every safe step possible, imaginable, doable to keep the kiddos in school; … but it's going to be the school's call.”
State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box also answered repeated questions on the issue Friday – saying Hoosiers feel the decisions should be in the hands of elected officials.
“We are really trying to allow and have heard clearly from our local elected officials, and from our schools that they want to make these decisions locally, that it's important to them to be able to make the decisions,” she said. “And so, you know we are giving strong recommendations strong guidance and giving the science behind those strong recommendations and guidance, and then allowing them to make that decision.”
She said many things are different this year compared with when there was a mandate – including availability of vaccines to all staff and even to kids 12 and older for months. Many schools have also improved their ventilation systems and overall air quality.
Still, the American Academy of Pediatrics' guidance supports universal masking in schools. It lists multiple reasons, including not having to track who has and hasn't been vaccinated.
Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Matthew Sutter said it is difficult to predict what might happen in classes this upcoming year without mask mandates.
“We don't have a good model about what it looks like when you're not wearing masks indoors,” Sutter said. “There's reasons to think there will be spread.”
Phil Downs understands the position district leaders are in. He retired in May from being superintendent at Southwest Allen County Schools.
“Over the last year of my superintendency, I got calls regularly from both sides who were convinced they were right and that I was making a huge mistake by not getting totally on board with them,” Downs said.
He remains involved with the School Superintendents Association.
He said the organization's official position about school coronavirus protocols is to follow the science. Superintendents are school experts, so they should look to what health and disease experts recommend, understanding the guidance will evolve as the science and local situations change.
“There is no way to do your job as a board member or superintendent without, right now, angering people,” Downs said.
One argument against masks is that kids are not affected by the virus the same as adults. There have been tens of thousands of school-related cases but only eight deaths for those up to age 19 in Indiana while the state overall has had more than 13,570.
Sutter acknowledged that the risk of hospitalization and death in children is “very low,” but he also stressed COVID-19 is “not a benign disease, either.” He cited a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that found 4% of children diagnosed with COVID-19 had significant symptoms three months later.
Lisa Tanselle, general counsel for the Indiana School Boards Association, said schools are implementing other mitigation measures – including suggested guidelines for socially distanced desks. And she noted that schools have used federal dollars to improve ventilation systems and air quality.
Districts including East Allen County Schools stressed other precautions remain in place, including an emphasis on hand-washing, cleaning and disinfecting, and general social distancing.
“This is a multilayered approach,” EACS spokeswoman Tamyra Kelly said.
This school year, FWCS will implement a voluntary, random testing COVID-19 program to identify any potential cases in buildings, Stockman said. Testing will be done as clusters, not individually identifiable tests. The FWCS re-entry plan says this is meant to identify students and staff who may have the virus and be contagious but don't have symptoms. This allows the district to take quick action to prevent further spread to other students and their families.
Participation by students will require parental consent, and staff members will also have to opt in.
FWCS' new Fort Wayne Virtual Academy is an option for parents concerned about sending their children to schools without universal mask-wearing, Stockman said.
“Parents have had all summer to sign up for that,” she said.
Tanselle said “ultimately going mask optional really puts the authority in the hands of the parent.”
And those parents have been vocal at local school board meetings for months – on both sides of the debate. Meetings have sometimes become heated and extra security or police attended.
Despite that, Tanselle said schools prefer having the authority rather than the governor's mandate.
“One size doesn't fit all,” she said. “They are looking at what is actually happening in their communities. You're not going to please everybody with any decision you make.”
Tanselle said districts are working closely with local health officials to develop back-to-school plans. And she noted the CDC guidance is just that – suggestions.
“There are other factors that schools have taken into consideration – such as a large percentage of faculty being vaccinated,” Tanselle said.
Now that there is even newer guidance from the federal government, she said districts will review it.
Districts have stressed their coronavirus protocols are subject to change as conditions change. NACS' plans, for example, say state mask requirements could be reinstated if community spread reaches concerning levels as determined by the Allen County Department of Health.
The department doesn't have a pre-determined threshold for a mask mandate to kick in, Sutter said. In general, he would consider a health order when he believes the community is on a path for hospitals to become overwhelmed. It isn't clear with this level of vaccination where that will be, Sutter said, noting he is monitoring hospitalization rates and comparing them with case rates.
Although decisions about protocols ultimately lie with school boards, Sutter said he can implement a public health order superseding district policies with approval from the county commissioners.
Most schools in northeast Indiana reported their COVID-19 case numbers to the state's school virus dashboard after the database launched during the fall 2020 semester.
Because the state suppresses totals of five and fewer by category – students, teachers and staff – exact totals are unknown for many schools. The Journal Gazette treated “five and fewer” as both “one” and “five” when determining the range of student case numbers for each county in the 2020-21 school year. Numbers include public and private schools.
Here are the number of COVID-19 school-related cases in each county: