The Tippecanoe School Corporation school board voted 6-1 during an emergency session Monday to mandate masks within school buildings.
The vote comes after the county health department released numbers showing the district had a disproportionately high number of students quarantined because of exposure to COVID-19.
According to the Tippecanoe County Health Department, TSC had 42 positive cases as of Thursday last week, along with 388 quarantined students. Lafayette and West Lafayette both had 11 positive cases each and 28 and 20 quarantines, respectively. Those numbers come after roughly two weeks of school.
Both the Lafayette and West Lafayette school corporations approved mask requirements before the start of the school year. TSC’s board voted to keep masks optional.
Tippecanoe County Health Officer Dr. Jeremy Adler reiterated last week that Indiana’s quarantine rules require that in an unmasked environment, anyone within a six foot radius has to quarantine. With masks, that radius declines to three feet.
Before voting in favor of the mask mandate, board member Jacob Burton said he did so not because he feared student infection, but because the quarantine rules established by the state would continue to disrupt education.
“Until the Indiana Department of Health decides to treat COVID-19 as they do the flu we will continue to disrupt the education of our students who are forced to quarantine through no fault of their own,” Burton said. “Until the quarantine rules are abolished there will be no end in sight.”
TSC Superintendent Scott Hanback noted that as long as the state’s quarantine rules remained, the only way to reduce quarantines was through masking.
“TSC has been following the local, state and CDC guidance to a T with the exception perhaps of the masking,” he said. “You have that discretion as a board. I don’t believe you have that same discretion when it comes to the reporting, the contact tracing, and the quarantining.”
But, Hanback said, those rules could be confusing to students.
“Our kids go to the mall on the weekend, they go to the movies on the weekend. They see what’s going on in public,” he said. “And then to say that we have to follow these rules that come down on the state that’s very confusing to an eight year old or a fifteen year old or a nineteen year old in our schools.”
“You are in a no-win situation,” Hanback added as the board’s debate on the issue went on. “Until the rules of engagement change you cannot win. This debate will continue and we will continue to quarantine kids as long as these are the rules of engagement.”
In late July, Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box noted that “multiple strategies” would be required to keep students in school. Those strategies include masking, vaccination, contact tracing, and quarantine.
Tippecanoe County Health Administrator Khala Hochstedler attended the meeting and has two students at the corporation. The health department has been advising schools to adopt a mask mandate.
“I’m happy that it was a yes,” she said. “I think some further education on the quarantine rules and the state law is needed for the board. Hopefully we can work on that before the next meeting.”
Hochstedler said the quarantine rules are in place to protect people.
“It’s been proven over and over again how infections COVID-19 is,” she said. “There is clear data on this. More education is needed.”
Jennifer Dobbs-Oates is a mother with two students enrolled at TSC who has been in support of masking. She said she was relieved by the decision - but frustrated by how the board got there.
“I certainly heard a desire to just do away with all rules,” she said. “If we just didn’t have rules then apparently that would mean we didn't have problems. Which is a funny thing for school leaders because schools love rules, schools are full of rules.”
“I’ve seen a lot that is very disappointing,” Dobbs-Oates said. “It’s made it clear to me that we need some better choices on the ballot in the future. But that’s a thing for the future. For today I’m very relieved that my kids will get to go to a school building that is full of masks for universal protection.”
The new mask requirements are set to go into effect on Wednesday.