Masks will stay at Northwest Allen County Schools through the end of the semester to keep more students in classrooms, the five-member board decided in a split vote Wednesday night.
Board President Kent Somers – who repeatedly referenced East Allen County Schools' and Southwest Allen County Schools' mask-optional policies – stressed his disagreement.
“Absolutely not,” Somers said after a lengthy debate that was conducted virtually. More than a dozen people showed up for an earlier, tightly controlled in-person meeting, but they mostly stayed outside the school holding signs protesting masks and Superintendent Chris Himsel.
Like they did in August, Somers and member Steve Bartkus pushed for a mask-optional policy but again were outvoted by Liz Hathaway, Kristi Schlatter and Ron Felger.
The three asserted the mask requirement would keep more students in classrooms and with their peers rather than at home for COVID-related illness or quarantine. This should lead to less disruption with athletics and other extracurriculars as well as finals in December, the board members said.
“If schools close, we're putting those things in jeopardy,” Schlatter said. “That's what matters to me.”
Data provided by Himsel supported that logic. Only 14 students were quarantined in the last two weeks, he said. Without the mask mandate, he said, the state's stricter quarantine rules would be in place, leading to 300 student quarantines.
The mandate, which took effect Sept. 1, previously was set to expire tonight.
Bartkus predicted the board will continually rehash the mask debate as mandates expire.
“Sooner or later it's just got to stop,” Bartkus said. “These kids need to get back to their lives.”
Somers agreed, noting the district will never have zero student cases.
“We're living in fear, and we're continuing to live in fear,” Somers said, noting that EACS and SACS are somehow able to operate without mask requirements.
Himsel noted that SACS serves a highly vaccinated area, including a ZIP code that is 98.3% fully vaccinated.
Somers questioned the board's legal counsel, Mark Scudder of Barnes & Thornburg, as to what would happen if the district flouted the quarantine rules. Scudder warned the district would likely be sued and could risk state funding.
Hathaway said the district must “live within the rules we are given.”
Speaking before an invisible online audience and not before an unruly, hostile crowd, Himsel and some board members challenged Somers and, particularly, Bartkus.
Himsel repeatedly corrected Bartkus about claims he made, including an accusation that district employees are hounding sniffling and sneezing students.
“I will not allow you to create a falsehood of what's happening,” Himsel said.
Felger put an end to the discussion by calling for a vote to keep the mask mandate. Somers said he was “incredibly disappointed” that Felger wanted to stop debate on a critical issue. Felger described it as a “circular argument that's just going nowhere.”