New guidance issued last week loosening quarantine rules for Indiana schools is clear: Symptom-free students, staff and faculty in close contact with a COVID-19 case can avoid quarantines – but only if schools require masks.
An incentive for districts such as East Allen County Schools and Southwest Allen County Schools stubbornly sticking with mask-optional policies amid pleas from doctors and public health professionals for mandates, the updated guidance from the Indiana Department of Health says schools and child care programs with mask requirements “consistently followed throughout the day” do not have to quarantine students, teachers and staff who are close contacts and aren't showing COVID-19 symptoms.
Not good enough, Southwest Allen board members Jennifer Bennett, Mark Gilpin, Brad Mills and Tom Rhoades said.
Ignoring science and a request from Superintendent Park Ginder to make masks mandatory, they voted instead to create their own rules. They passed a measure – board member Jennifer Couch was the lone “no” vote – saying close contacts won't require quarantines if the exposed and infected persons were wearing masks at the time.
That eschews state rules that everyone in the classroom must be fully masked for relaxed quarantining to take effect, confusing Ginder – who told The Journal Gazette's Ashley Sloboda after a Tuesday meeting that, “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.”
Reacting to the move Wednesday, Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Matthew Sutter said Southwest Allen overstepped its statutory boundaries.
“Since the quarantine rules are set at the state level, neither the local school boards nor local health departments have the authority to create less-stringent rules than the state,” he said.
State officials were blunt.
“Absent conditions in which everyone is fully masked in a classroom as described, close contacts must be quarantined without exception,” state health department spokeswoman Megan Wade-Taxter said in an email. “These are part of the control measures in place for communicable diseases.”
In New Haven Tuesday, East Allen board members Todd Buckmaster, Gayle Etzler, Tim Hines and Ron Turpin – a candidate for the Republican nomination for state Senate – were busy casting aside a proposal from Superintendent Marilyn Hissong to require masks. But at least they didn't try to usurp state authority.
Board members Jenny Blackburn, Paulette Nellems and Steve Screeton voted for masks.
Indiana schools again this week set another unwanted record with more than 7,200 new coronavirus cases in students, staff and teachers. Of those, about 6,300 were students.
Southwest Allen had at least 30 new student cases from Sept. 3 to 7, state data show, and East Allen had at least 22 new positive tests among students.
Sutter, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other experts continue to push for universal masking, arguing it's a simple step to combat the virulent virus.
“I am disappointed by our local school boards' decisions to not employ universal masking in schools,” Sutter said. “Universal masking, in addition to vaccination, remains an important tool to slow the spread of COVID-19 and help keep kids in school.”