The Tippecanoe School Corporation’s optional mask policy for students remained in place after the school board heard hours of public comment from a packed room of parents at a board meeting Wednesday.
Many parents spoke in favor of the board's decision, noting that the first day of school felt normal without masks. A group of TSC parents even wore matching blue t-shirts with the word “freedom” placed over the word “fear.”
But, while last week's board meeting was largely made up of parents opposed to masking, Wednesday night's meeting was attended by an equal number of parents in favor of a mandate.
Michael Childress has three children in the TSC system. He said not many children die from COVID-19.
“But some do. But some do. What’s the price of one child’s life? I think wearing a mask is a small price to pay,” he said. “I came out tonight because the decision not to impose a mask mandate in schools right now is capricious, it’s foolhardy, and it’s gambling with our children’s lives.”
Teresa and Phil Reksel have two children currently at TSC, one of whom isn’t old enough to get vaccinated. Phil said he’s been anxious about COVID and the start of school all summer.
“I’ve been having a hard time sleeping for weeks knowing this was coming. No sleep last night,” he said. “I’m just constantly worried about them.”
“I have a knot in my stomach,” Teresa said. “We’ve been trying for over a year to stay safe and we’ve been successful in that. We hope things will be a little bit safer.”
The board did not bring the school corporation’s mask decision back up for a vote.
Board Vice President Linda Day said she would have brought the plan up for a vote but “the votes would be the same.”
Board member Joshua Loggins reiterated his position - noting that even as someone who believes in masking and vaccination, he would not send students away if they showed up to school without a mask.
“If we tell them to do a mandate and all of a sudden a bunch of students show up without masks I’m not comfortable excluding those students from getting an education,” he said. “It’s really a matter of being inclusive.”
Loggins said he’s frustrated that the decision has fallen on the board - and would much rather the decision be left up to a medical expert.
“It would be, in my opinion, a more appropriate decision for someone who is a medical doctor,” said Loggins. “Trusting somebody like our county health department expert, if he had the ability to place the mandate it would be coming from a medical doctor and it would be the board’s responsibility to support and back up and implement what would be said.”
“But as far as having the school board mandate something? That’s a very tough decision to put a school board in that doesn’t have any medical doctors on the school board,” he added.
Since the passage of SB5 earlier this year, local health officials no longer have the authority to implement health restrictions. That means decisions have now fallen to local elected officials.
Lafayette School Corporation Superintendent Les Huddle raised similar frustrations about being asked to make medical decisions earlier this week, noting that health decisions aren’t the “profession” of school officials.
Tippecanoe County commissioners could also make the decision to institute a mask mandate in K-12 schools, but have so far taken a hard stance against reinstating any health restrictions.
After the Tippecanoe School Corporation voted against a mask requirement last week, Tippecanoe County Health officer Dr. Jeremy Adler requested commissioners enforce a mandate.
“They said right now they feel like that is not the way they want to go,” he said.
County commissioners did not immediately respond to our request for comment.
Adler points to other schools that have opened without masking as a clear warning sign.
“What we don’t want to see is what has been seen already in other parts of the state, in other parts of the country, where schools have gone back without requiring masks and within 1-2 weeks they have so many cases and so many quarantines that they are closing,” he said.
County Commissioner Tom Murtaugh said he still supports keeping decisions in the hands of elected officials.
“I was in support of Senate Bill 5 and still am,” he said. “It puts a lot of pressure on us but it’s something that I think is needed.”
Murtaugh added he wouldn’t feel comfortable telling local school boards what to do after they’ve already made their decisions.
“The school board is an elected body as well and I’d have issues overriding an elected board that represents that constituency,” he said.
Murtaugh said it isn’t possible to say whether there will or won’t eventually be a mandate - if cases get bad enough that could tip commissioners' hands.
“We would have to have consensus that we would support a mandate recommended by Dr. Adler,” he said. “I can’t put my finger on what exactly would trigger that. But what we have to focus on, more than mask or not, is getting the vaccination rate up.”
Murtaugh said the situation in Tippecanoe County hospitals will play a role in future decisions.
“We communicate extremely well and the hospitals have been phenomenal partners,” he said. “We’ll keep that in mind as a factor as we move forward.
COVID has already put increasing strain on local hospitals. Both IU Health Arnett and Franciscan Health announced on Wednesday that they had begun limiting elected procedures due to a mix of COVID, injuries, and unrelated illnesses.
With roughly half of the county fully vaccinated, Dr. Adler said COVID isn’t going away.
“Without an adequate number of people vaccinated, without reaching herd immunity, this cycle of variant strains of the COVID-19 virus is just going to keep happening again and again,” he said.