A new start: At right, a masked student walks into the Deming Early Learning Center on Monday for the first day of school for the Vigo County School Corporation.At top, a masked kindergartener gives a student a hug before the start of class at the center. Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza
A new start: At right, a masked student walks into the Deming Early Learning Center on Monday for the first day of school for the Vigo County School Corporation.At top, a masked kindergartener gives a student a hug before the start of class at the center. Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza
The surge in COVID-19 cases has fueled a masking debate across Indiana school districts — and districts nationwide — pitting those who want freedom to choose for their children against those who believe not masking puts their children's health at risk.

In some cases, the debate at school board meetings has become emotional and, at times, disruptive.

• On Aug. 9, the Lafayette School Board meeting abruptly adjourned when some members of the audience declined the board's request to wear masks.

Just after the roll call, Les Huddle, superintendent of Lafayette schools, explained that all LSC buildings were currently mask-mandated and asked the audience members to put on masks. When those unmasked declined to put masks on, the meeting was adjourned, according to news reports.

• In Clay County, the school board voted 4-3 on Aug. 17 during an emergency meeting to require masking in schools while the county has a red ranking in the state COVID-19 metrics map. Many in the audience opposed required masking; someone in the audience shouted, "You guys are getting voted out." Another person suggested the board action would be harmful to children.

Prior to the board vote, Superintendent Jeff Fritz said he's seen the school board face contentious issues before, usually involving building projects or athletics, "but I've seen nothing like COVID-19, especially with the issue of masks."

• In Vigo County on Aug. 9, the school board voted 4-3 to go from being mask-optional to requiring masks in grades Pre-K to 6. Required masking also applies to grades 7-12, but with more flexibility. In grades 7-12, masks can be removed during forward-facing instruction and for some classes such as physical education and band/orchestra.

At the Aug. 9 Vigo County School Board meeting, more than two dozen people addressed the board, many of them asking that parents be allowed to choose whether students mask. Some questioned masking effectiveness, while others want the freedom to choose.

Two days later, many of those opposing required masking conducted a protest at the district administrative offices; some said they will look at other options for schooling their children. They carried signs that read, "My child, My choice — unmask our children," "Masks can't stop a virus," and "Oxygen is essential." One person carried a mask that stated, "This mask is useless."

Among the protestors was Brianna Frank, who has two elementary-aged children. "We don't believe in masking our children," Frank said. "It's not healthy, it's not normal ... I don't want my children growing up like that. They need fresh air."

She added, "My body, my choice." The district should focus on children's education and let parents focus on their health, she said.

After the Aug. 9 meeting, VCSC Superintendent Rob Haworth said, "It's a tough decision. ... I've seen families torn apart because of their beliefs in COVID. I've seen churches torn apart because of their beliefs in COVID. We're just trying to keep the school system moving forward."

A major consideration for the district and board was, "How do we not cancel school; how do we not create a situation like we had last year" when schools had to close due to COVID cases and quarantines, Haworth said.

Controversy plays out in many Hoosier school districts

Many school districts throughout Indiana are dealing with controversy over required masking.

"There are a number of boards grappling with this right now," said Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association. "It is such a challenging issue. There is not going to be 100% agreement. We just have to operate with the facts that are received, the science" and recommendations from health experts.

A few weeks ago, most school boards had decided to go with a mask-optional policy — but since that time, COVID cases have been increasing and more and more districts have required masking, based on guidance from the CDC as well as state and local health departments.

"It's really dictated by local circumstances and positivity rate trending," he said.

As of Wednesday, 11 Indiana counties were red on the state's color coded map, which means "very high positivity and community spread." Most counties are orange, which means community spread is approaching high levels.

"We're doing the best we can to be agile and adapt to the circumstances. Unfortunately, we are in this for the long haul. The pandemic is still prevalent; it's still significant," Spradlin said.

District and boards prefer to make masking optional, based on parent preference, Spradlin said. In requiring masking, they are looking at what is best for the student body and staff at each school "and we want to keep kids in school without having to move to virtual education to the degree we had to this past year."

Remote learning took a toll last year, resulting in learning loss, demonstrated in part by lower ILEARN scores.

School boards around the state are dealing with the masking debate. "That's the trials and tribulations of what we're going to have to endure" while the pandemic takes its course, Spradlin said. "I laud school board members for doing the best they can."

The timing in the upsurge in COVID cases is unfortunate, given it's happening right at the start of school. "We need to work collectively together. We need to find common ground in these uncommon unprecedented times, to do what is best for kids," Spradlin said.

An 'enormously difficult' issue

Brad Balch, interim dean at Indiana State University's Bayh College of Education, said the issue is "enormously difficult" for districts and school boards. Masking has been "heavily politicized," he said. The governor's mandate expired, which makes it a local school district decision.

In addition, the Indiana Legislature has passed a law prohibiting state or local government from issuing or requiring COVID-19 vaccine passports.

"Because of the politicization of masking, vaccine passports, your personal rights versus those things, school boards find themselves right in the middle of this," Balch said. Individuals with polar opposite points of view are sharing their concerns at school board meetings.

When these heated issues with strong viewpoints arise, Many people "are not coming from a place of facts; they are coming from a place of emotion," he said. For those protesting mandated masking, it doesn't matter what the CDC says or that health officials say masking helps prevent COVID spread.

He believes the state and national controversy may involve much more than masking. "I sometimes think the masking issue gets caught up in other important issues of concern with patrons across the state and country" that may include critical race theory and social-emotional learning.

Balch works with many districts around the state. "These are pivotal issues in some communities and not an item of concern in other communities," he said. "This has so much to do with local, situational context."

Would it help districts if the state mandated school masking?

One-size-fits-all mandates are difficult to implement for a variety of reasons, in part because communities and their demographics are so different across the state, Balch said.

Those mandates "most often play out favorably if we have the best interest of children's safety and security in mind," he said.

At this point, it appears Gov. Eric Holcomb "has doubled down to his commitment to let local school districts make that decision."

"I think we're going to see this play out at the local level for a bit more time to come, but there may reach a point where the Delta variant increases things to the point where we do impose something in the best interests of safety and security," Balch said.

Holcomb recently gave his support to the growing number of school districts across the state issuing mask mandates. "I think the schools that are putting mask mandates into place are making a wise decision when the facts warrant it," he said, according to the Associated Press. "I'm not surprised by the pushback, having lived through the last year-and-a half."

Anderson schools also return to required masking

• In Anderson Community Schools, high numbers of student quarantines resulting from several students and staff testing positive for COVID prompted the district — which had been mask-optional — to mandate masking for at least two weeks starting Aug. 9; July 28 was students' first day of school. On Aug. 18, the mandate was extended to Oct. 1.

In the first week and a half of classes, 38 students and eight staff members reported cases of COVID-19. Also, 332 students were absent due to quarantine, representing about 5% of the district's student body.

Brad Meadows, Anderson schools director for district and community engagement, said the district was one of the first in the state to go back to required masking. "We're doing all we can to try to make our buildings as safe as possible and keep them open," he said.

While there have been a few instances of parents sharing concerns about required masking, "By and large, we've had overwhelming support for masks and a mask requirement," Meadows said.

Meanwhile, at the Aug. 17 emergency meeting of the Clay Community School Board, Superintendent Jeff Fritz spoke to the controversy and conflict over required masking.

As the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks draws near, he pointed out how that catastrophic event united the country. "COVID-19 has done the opposite," dividing the nation and community — pitting family members against family members, neighbors against neighbors, Fritz said.

Each day, he said, he prays for schools and the safety of students, staff and parents. "I pray for civility, peace and calm," he said. "We have some trying times we are dealing with now. We have some trying times ahead of us."
© 2022 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.