The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, September 08, 2021 1:00 am

2 districts turn down masking mandates

Emotions high as EACS, SACS boards defy leaders


Masks remain optional in two Allen County districts despite superintendents' efforts Tuesday to reinstate mandates.

The proposals at East Allen County Schools and Southwest Allen County Schools were in reaction to Gov. Eric Holcomb's action last week that loosened quarantine rules for symptom-free students, teachers and staff in close contact with a positive COVID-19 case – but only if schools mandated masks.

Parents cheered when the EACS board rejected a proposed face mask mandate for students and staff. The mandate, which generated intense board discussion, would have taken effect Monday and lasted for one month.

The vote was tied at 3-3 when President Todd Buckmaster voted no.

Sound was muted during Buckmaster's vote, causing confusion for people following the meeting on Zoom. About a dozen residents sat inside the board room on socially distanced chairs. An additional 30 to 50 were outside the building, monitoring the meeting virtually as they waited their turn to speak and, later, the vote. Their cheers were heard a few moments later when someone sitting inside walked out and delivered the news.

Meanwhile, the SACS board elicited applause from those inside a packed conference room when members voted 4-1 for a policy maintaining the district's mask recommended stance.

The successful proposal crafted by member Tom Rhoades added confusion to the district's policy, however. It adjusted the quarantine rules so that close contacts wouldn't have to quarantine if both the exposed person and the infected person were wearing masks.

SACS Superintendent Park Ginder told reporters afterward he was puzzled.

“This decision would be contrary to the Indiana Department of Health, the governor's order, which allowed the Indiana Department of Health to make some changes, and our local Allen County Department of Health as well,” Ginder said. “I'm not sure what it does for us at this point because I'm not sure it takes kids out of the quarantine.”

A rumble of thunder sounded at the start of Ginder's presentation defending universal mask-wearing, briefly breaking the tension in the transportation conference room, which had standing room only.

“It's a sign,” someone in the audience said as others laughed.

Under Ginder's proposal, masks would have been required beginning Thursday with a review Oct. 5. That strategy, he said, would have reduced the number of healthy students forced to quarantine.

Ginder shared COVID-19 case and quarantine numbers from the previous two weeks to illustrate how a few dozen diagnoses can lead to hundreds of quarantines when mask-wearing is optional.

A few masked speakers asked the SACS board to reinstate the requirement, but most who spoke supported the optional stance, and some people in the audience held signs reinforcing that message. 

Bradley Mills, SACS board president, once had to bang his gavel to bring order to the vocal crowd.

“We appreciate civility here,” Mills said.

At EACS, the public comment period went for more than an hour, with 23 people participating. Most vehemently opposed mask requirements.

EACS board members Ron Turpin and Paulette Nellems went back and forth during the board discussion. Turpin said because vaccines are available, anyone who is worried about the coronavirus could get the shot. That makes masks unnecessary, in his opinion.

Only people 12 and older are eligible for vaccination.

“People are dying,” Nellems replied. “I went to two funerals this weekend.”

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