For weeks, the wrong people have been the loudest at school board meetings.
The anti-vaxxers, the anti-maskers – they have dominated once-routine meetings. Their increasingly combative calls for “freedom” and “parents' rights” have drowned out moves toward sensible, science-based measures to protect faculty, staff and students from a deadly virus.
But amid the cacophony of conspiracy theories and misinformation, it was refreshing this week to hear voices from leaders intent on doing the right thing.
Three members of the Northwest Allen County Schools Board quieted – figuratively, at least – the loudest voices in the room when they voted Monday to reimplement a mask mandate that was allowed to expire when Gov. Eric Holcomb earlier this year left those decisions to school leaders. “Yes” votes by Liz Hathaway, Kristi Schlatter and Ron Felger on a measure requiring masks cut calmly through the din created by hecklers and the misguided claims from parents that masks either don't work or are harmful.
Their votes stood, even after a second vote later in the meeting that board members Kent Somers and Steve Bartkus hoped would kill the mandate.
Somers, the board president, is openly skeptical about masks and is married to Lisa Bobay-Somers – an ardent anti-mask advocate who has urged parents to remove their children from NACS in an attempt to cost the school district millions of dollars in state funding. Bobay-Somers spoke during the meeting Tuesday, while her husband lamented not being warned about the mandate resolution.
“Everything you're doing is behind the scenes,” Somers told Hathaway, who proposed making masks mandatory again, “and it smells of stinkiness.”
Bartkus and Somers each have proposed board action in the past without giving members prior notice.
NACS is now the second Allen County school district to require masks, and the decision came on the same day Indiana set a record among students for new COVID-19 cases. More than 5,500 new cases among Hoosier students were reported by the Indiana Department of Health, along with 600 in teachers and staff.
As of late Monday, Northwest Allen had 168 student cases; it had 377 all of last year when masks were mandatory at the 8,000-student district.
Statistics provided bySuperintendent Chris Himsel show that new cases have increased quickly so far this year, with nine new cases by Aug. 15 and 105 two weeks later.
Fort Wayne Community Schools, with nearly 30,000 students, had about 60 new student cases, as of Monday. FWCS started the school year with a mask mandate and has kept it in place.
There is no debate here. Masks work, and they are essential for local schools where more than half of Allen County's students are in grades 6 – roughly age 12, when children can first receive coronavirus vaccines – or below.
Duke University researchers reported in late June that masks prevented COVID-19 transmission, even without physical distancing.
“With masking, the schools clearly can safely deliver face-to-face education for children and adults,” Dr. Danny Benjamin of Duke's ABC Science Collaborative said in a statement announcing results of the study. “They can have one, two or three children (per seat) on the school buses. The amount of distancing, whether it's less than 6 feet, less than 3 feet or no distancing at all, it didn't make any difference at all ... providing there was masking in place.”
Hathaway, Schlatter and Felger deserve praise for their votes confronting ignorance and vitriol. We look forward to that message spreading.