FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Allen Superior Court Judge David Avery Wednesday heard both sides in a lawsuit against Northwest Allen County Schools concerning its mask mandate and quarantine policies during the pandemic.
After a two hour hearing, Avery said he may make a decision on whether or not he will dismiss the lawsuit. That decision could come before the next hearing on Jan. 10.
The school district and other defendants, including the state and county, have asked that the suit be dismissed, in part because the mask mandate is no longer mandatory.
The mask mandate ended last week, and it’s unclear whether it will be reinstituted, long-time board member Ronald Felger said.
“At the present time, the mask mandate is no longer in effect. It expired last week,” Felger said after he attended the hearing. The next NACS meeting is Jan. 10, the same date as the scheduled hearing in front of Judge Avery.
Local attorney Kevin Mitchell, representing parents of NACS students, said even though the mask mandate has ended, there are lingering issues he believes are involved in the constitutionality of the mandate and subsequent quarantining of students.
The mask mandate was re-imposed in late August after school cases started to soar. The school board voted 3-2 in favor it. The three board members who voted “yes” were Felger, Kristi Schlatter and Elizabeth Hathaway.
Others named in the suit filed in September include Gov. Eric Holcomb, the Indiana State Department of Health and its director, Dr. Kristina Box, the Allen County Department of Health and its director Matthew Sutter, NACS superintendent Chris Himsel, and Carroll High School Assistant Principal Tanya Pickett.
Mitchell said more than 3,000 students were quarantined, but only 10 students were diagnosed with COVID.
Felger said he and other board members felt the mask mandate helped continue in-school instruction, by limiting spread and infection.
Mitchell argued that the case needed to continue because every entity named in the lawsuit was blaming the other party.
‘No one wants to take ownership,” Mitchell said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate at this point to dismiss this claim.”
Theodore Storer, attorney for the Allen County Department of Health and Mark Scudder, NACS attorney, laid out precedents for the mask mandates, including state law. Mark Schudder, an attorney with Barnes and Thornburg law firm, represented the school district.
The idea that NACS created an unfair system by requiring masks wasn’t true, Scudder said. “The schools treated everyone equally at the school. The rules were applied equally.”
The state’s home rule law for schools also supports the steps the schools took during the pandemic that has now claimed 800,000 lives nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control or CDC.
“Anyway you cut it, it’s clearly constitutional and it’s clearly legal,” Scudder said. Superintendents are authorized “to take the actions necessary. We are in the middle of a pandemic.”
Scudder added that wearing masks had a “rational basis even though it doesn’t mean everyone agrees.”