MIDDLEBURY — Two more school districts have decided to require masks inside their buildings following state rules encouraging local officials to adopt such requirements.
The state rules require mask-optional schools to send unvaccinated close-contact students home for weeks but will allow schools with mask mandates to keep those students in school.
Middlebury Community Schools and Goshen Community Schools on Tuesday joined those districts requiring that all students and staff wear a mask while inside school buildings, in addition to when they are in school buses, where masks remain federally mandated.
Middlebury’s mask requirement for all students and staff became effective Wednesday. In a video posted to the district’s YouTube channel, Superintendent Jayson Snyder referenced Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Sept. 1 executive order, saying it had “greatly limited our options.”
“Based on this executive order and the protocol set forth by the Indiana Department of Health, if a school district remains mask-optional, as we have been thus far, we would be required to have all unvaccinated students who are identified as close contacts quarantine at home for a minimum of 10 to 14 days,” he said.
Hundreds of students and “numerous” district staff members have been identified as close contacts, according to Snyder. Until now, they had been allowed to come to school wearing a mask, but that is no longer allowed for the unvaccinated in schools that don’t require all students and staff to wear masks.
“Simply put, based on these new orders, if we were to remain mask-optional, hundreds of Middlebury Community Schools students would continue to be identified as unvaccinated close contacts and would need to be sent home from school for 10 to 14 days and also prohibited from participating in extra-curricular activities,” he said.
That would hurt learning and student well-being and create problems for parents who depend on having their children attend school during their workday, according to Snyder. The only way to avoid that was for the board to adopt a temporary mask requirement, he said.
But the change does not mean that Middlebury students will wear masks at all times. Snyder said it is the district’s understanding that students are allowed to have socially distanced mask breaks in their classrooms, as well as during classes like band, choir, physical education and during lunch. Masks are not required outdoors.
The video was posted to the district’s Facebook page on Tuesday and received hundreds of reactions and comments from people agreeing and disagreeing with the new requirement.
“We know that this decision will likely be supported by many in this community, but we also understand this will make some people unhappy,” Snyder said. “Please know that it was our intention to let the local data drive our decision-making. However, the governor’s executive order changes everything.”
Snyder encouraged those who think the governor’s order is government overreach to direct their arguments at the governor’s office and the office of the state health commissioner.
In a news release, Goshen Community Schools also referenced Holcomb’s order.
“In accordance with the order, GCS will implement a mask requirement for all K-12 students, staff, and visitors beginning on Thursday, September 9, 2021. The Governor’s order extends to September 30, 2021, at which time this GCS mask requirement will be reevaluated,” a press release from the district said.
K-6 students at Goshen Community Schools had been required to wear masks since Aug. 23, while masks were optional for older students. Superintendent Steven Hope said the updated requirement should help ensure that students don’t have to learn from home once again.
“The K-12 mask requirement should protect the 2021-22 school year, keeping students in the classroom, and avoiding a return to virtual learning,” he said.
The Baugo Community Schools board met in an emergency session on Tuesday to consider the issue and rejected Superintendent Byron Sanders’ recommendation to require masks in a 2-3 vote.
According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, 37 Baugo students were COVID-19 positive last week and 450 – translating to 23.7 percent – were close contacts.
Elkhart County Health Officer Dr. Bethany Wait has been trying to take the pressure off schools lately, saying they cannot bear the entire burden of mitigating COVID-19, but that the community as a whole needs to do what is necessary; wearing masks in public indoor settings and getting vaccinated.
But, she said, if students, too, get vaccinated and wear masks in school, they are more likely to be able to stay in the classroom.
“That is by far our goal, to keep kids in school. That’s what we’ve been talking about this entire time,” she said Wednesday. “Remember, the easiest thing is, if a child is vaccinated, you don’t have to worry about any of this.”
However, 12- to 15-year-olds are the age group with the lowest vaccine uptake statewide, with 29.2 percent being fully vaccinated. For comparison, more than 50 percent of all eligible Hoosiers are fully vaccinated, and 16- to 19-year-olds are at 39 percent.
Elkhart schools previously adopted a universal mask policy; Edwardsburg schools last week voted to start the school year with masks optional.