The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, August 31, 2021 1:00 am

NACS reinstates mask mandate

Angry residents vow to oust 3 board members

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

An unruly audience on Monday criticized the three school board members who voted to reinstate Northwest Allen County Schools' mask mandate. The requirement takes effect Wednesday.

“Revote! Revote! Revote!” mask mandate opponents chanted after two hours of public comment. 

Member Steve Bartkus, who opposed the mandate along with President Kent Somers, was game.

“Let's just revote then,” Bartkus said to cheers.

His attempts to rescind the measure supported by Vice President Liz Hathaway and members Kristi Schlatter and Ron Felger weren't successful.

NACS will again require masks beginning 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. The mandate will expire at 11:59 p.m. Oct. 14 unless extended by the board based on COVID-19 trends and advice from health experts.

Gov. Eric Holcomb required mask-wearing in all K-12 schools last academic year, but masking decisions have been up to local school boards since Holcomb's order expired June 30.

Of the four Allen County districts, only Fort Wayne Community Schools began the 2021-22 academic year with a mask requirement.

Dr. Matthew Sutter, the Allen County health commissioner, issued an advisory last week encouraging school boards to revise optional masking policies. He recommended universal masking in K-12 schools.

Somers – who has publicly expressed skepticism about masks – criticized Hathaway for proposing the resolution without giving the board prior notice – although both he and Bartkus have done the same thing this year.

“Everything you're doing is behind the scenes,” Somers said, “and it smells of stinkiness.”

Hathaway suggested the mask mandate after Superintendent Chris Himsel briefed the board on the district's COVID-19 statistics through the first 14 days of school.

The board has a responsibility to the district's 8,000 students and their families, Hathaway and Schlatter said.

As of 4 p.m. Monday, NACS had 168 confirmed student cases of COVID-19 compared with 377 in all of last year, Himsel said.

The number of quarantined students testing positive is 30 so far this year, compared with fewer than 10 last year, Himsel said. This indicates a close contact at school.

There are 62 confirmed cases among elementary students, who are too young for vaccination, compared with 97 during the 2020-21 school year, Himsel added.

Some audience members thanked the board for the reinstated mandate, but those advocating for a mask-optional policy spoke the loudest and heckled mask-mandate supporters, board members and Himsel. At least three uniformed police officers attended the meeting to maintain order – or as much order as was possible.

The mask-optional proponents described the board's decision “disappointing,” “sneaky” and “pure evil.” When one woman praised the board for its action, someone called out: “Suck-up.”

Multiple people warned Felger, Hathaway and Schlatter that they will be voted off the school board in the 2022 election. Once the board is flipped, one man said, Himsel is out.

“2022 cannot come soon enough,” a woman said.

A man who dressed in a white medical coat and identified himself as an emergency room physician stressed the importance of COVID-19 mitigation measures.

“Everything that we can do as a public to help each other is important right now,” he said, pausing for audience interruptions. “We should be coming together as a community to help each other. It saddens me that we can't do that. It saddens me that you can't support us while we help you. ... To those out in the public, if you haven't gotten vaccinated, please do.”

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