FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – At Wednesday night’s meeting, the Northwest Allen County Schools (NACS) board extended the mask requirement through Dec. 18 at 11:59 p.m.
Masks will be required for every person on NACS property or at a NACS activity. An individual will not be required to wear a mask if they are more than six feet apart, outside, engaging in “high exertion activities,” while they are eating and drinking or any other exceptions required by federal or state law.
A virtual meeting to discuss topics such as the mask mandate began just after 8 p.m. The stream can be found on NACS’ YouTube page.
During the meeting, Superintendent Chris Himsel and school board president Kent Somers discussed the number of cases the school district had seen. At times the discussion was tense.
From the time school started to Labor Day, 1,290 students, or more than 15.9%, were absent from onsite instruction due to COVID-related illness or quarantine. During that time period, a mask mandate was not in place.
Since NACS instated the mandate on Sept. 7, 163 students, or less than 2.1%, were absent from onsite instruction due to COVID-related illness or quarantine.
While the mask mandate might be an influence in the quarantine decline, other factors may also have contributed. On Sept. 1, the Indiana Department of Health updated its quarantine procedures:
- Universal indoor masking situations result in close contacts within three feet of a person testing positive for SARS-CoV2/COVID-19 needing to self-monitor but no quarantines.
- Indoor situations without universal masking result in quarantining all close contacts within six feet of a person testing positive for SARS-CoV2/COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more.
Board member Steve Bartkus spoke to the board about those who have been “forced” to quit their jobs with the school because of the mask mandate. Himsel told the board that “no one has been fired.”
This was in reference to an instructional assistant at Carroll High School who says she was fired for choosing not to wear a mask but was still complying with the rules: she was outside six feet of other people throughout the school day.
After a tense discussion, Bartkus went on to tell the board that schools need to work with students and staff.
Members Ronald Felger and Liz Hathaway both agreed that the district was going to have to “pick their poison,” when it comes to quarantines or mask mandate.
District spokesperson Lizette Downey said she’s unsure how long the district’s board meetings will stay in the virtual format.
“We are working with law enforcement or the sheriff’s department and our public safety officer to make sure that we are following the best protocols that they think are needed in order to provide a safe environment for everyone,” Downey said.
A copy of the meeting’s agenda can be found here.
At 6 p.m., an in-person public hearing was held in the Perry Hill Elementary board room to discuss capital projects that will take place. Due to the room’s size, attendees watched the meeting from the school’s library. However, unlike past meetings, dozens of chairs sat empty.
Extra security was brought in as a safety precaution. Anyone interested in making a public comment was to be escorted to and from the board room. However, no one spoke during public comment.
A majority of the crowd was outside during the meeting. Dozens of parents stood outside Perry Hill Elementary holding signs calling for Himsel to be fired and for the board to remove the masks.
The entire public hearing lasted 15 minutes. The crowd stayed outside with their signs well after the school board had dispersed.
New safety measures were implemented for the meetings, which have become heated over masks.
“I don’t think in the history of the school corporation have we ever gone to this length for safety, it hasn’t been warranted,” said Downey. “We’ve never had this arise at any of our meetings until the last six months.”
“The Allen County Sheriff’s Department and parents and staff have expressed concerns with safety,” Downey said. “It’s no secret that they’ve gotten more heated as the months have progressed but we just want everyone to be safe. It’s important to us that that everyone feels comfortable in conducting a meeting and participating in a meeting or watching a meeting, so we decided that the virtual setting would be best.”
The next school board meeting is scheduled for Oct. 25 at 6 p.m.