School districts have jumped at the chance to implement new state quarantine guidance that allows asymptomatic students and staff to stay in school if they come in close contact with COVID-19 in the classroom. The change allows students to remain in class rather than be forced to temporarily learn at home from worksheets or remote courses.
The updated policy, which can be adopted by each individual school district, allows students and staff identified as close contacts to remain in school if they are asymptomatic and the district has a mask policy in place. A close contact is a person within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more within a 24-hour period.
But education leaders say limited communication from the state has led some public school districts to unknowingly violate the new quarantine policy. With the exception of eating and drinking, the new guidelines do not allow a student or staff member to remove their face covering indoors for a short period of time, known as a mask break. But some schools have been allowing this.
“Because the Indiana Department of Health is providing a no-quarantine option for schools that require masks in the classroom during the educational day, we encourage students, staff and faculty to wear their masks,” Indiana Department of Health spokesperson Megan Wade-Taxter said in an email. “If masks come off in the classroom, contact tracing and quarantine must occur.”
Allowing mask breaks is against the new quarantine policy since face coverings should only be off for lunch and recess, Wade-Taxter said.
Potential Risks Of Mask Breaks
Greg Zimet, a pediatrics and clinical psychology researcher at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said indoor mask breaks could make mask mandates less effective.
“I think it's pretty well established that transmission is much, much less likely outside,” Zimet said. “But it doesn't make much sense to have mask breaks inside because it kind of defeats the whole purpose.”
Zimet referenced an instance in California when an unvaccinated teacher took her mask off and accidentally infected 27 students and parents in late-May.
“She took a mask break and it didn't work out too well,” Zimet said.
Education Leaders Want More State Communication
School districts across the state are responsible for implementing their own COVID-19 protocols with guidance from the state and county public health departments.
In Marion County, where the local health department does not specifically outline mask break policies, all 11 public school districts now require face coverings as the delta variant causes a surge in new COVID cases.
In schools where masks aren’t being worn all the time, the former guidance should still be followed: as much as 14 days of quarantine, or as little as seven days, with a negative test.
But at least four of the Marion County districts allow for the removal of masks by some students while indoors even though they have implemented the new quarantine policy.
Some of those school districts were unaware of these requirements until contacted by WFYI, such as Beech Grove City Schools.
“Beech Grove City Schools have no awareness of IDOH guidance on mask breaks in schools,” Superintendent Laura Hammack said in an email response. “BGCS continues to hold the health and safety of our school community as our top priority. When the IDOH issues guidance to us regarding mask breaks and the need to change our current practice, we will.”
On Tuesday, the state health department said it’s up to school districts to make sure they’re following the updated guidance when each adopts their own no-quarantine policies. That is why some of the Marion County districts said they didn’t know they were breaking the new quarantine guidance.
J. T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, said many school districts aren’t sure what to do with some of the state’s COVID-19 guidance.
“Unlike the first go round with the pandemic, schools were inundated with information situationally based on the data, but now it appears the communication from the state has slowed considerably with this round,” Coopman said in an email. “Much of this is due to the politicization of masks in schools and due to the legislature suing the governor over his executive orders."
Coopman believes some school districts would like to see better communication and guidance from the state, such as when Gov. Eric Holcomb and State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box held regular pandemic news briefings.
“They now feel like they are on an island with local decisions,” Coopman said. “Additionally, the guidance from the CDC is being viewed by some as big brother and government overreach, which leads to further confusion with decision making.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended in August that all individuals age 2 years and older wear a mask regardless of vaccination status. It doesn't include guidelines for mask breaks indoors.
IDOH didn’t specify that anyone would be keeping school districts accountable, or that there would be penalties for school districts that don’t follow the guidance that they implement.
"We remain in regular communication with schools to reinforce the requirements,” Wade-Taxter said in an email. “Ultimately, schools that adopt this approach are responsible for ensuring that they follow the requirements."
Marion County District’s Mask Policy
Ten Marion County public school districts have at least partially implemented the new state quarantine guidance. This includes Beech Grove, Decatur, Franklin, Indianapolis Public Schools, Lawrence, Perry, Speedway, Warren, Washington and Wayne.
Pike Township allows mask breaks, but they have not implemented the new quarantine guidance.
Wayne Township allows elementary students to take mask breaks, but they haven’t approved the new quarantine guidance for those grade levels. For grades 7-12, Wayne Township does not have scheduled mask breaks. The district has only implemented the new quarantine policy in these grade levels since they are the only ones who “are fully masked in the classroom setting.”