ELKHART — Facial masks will be required for all students, staff and visitors inside the school buildings at Elkhart Community Schools beginning Thursday.
In a 4-3 vote, the school board on Tuesday night revised the district’s July decision, which allowed masks to be optional.
In his recommendation to the board, Superintendent Steve Thalheimer suggested that masks be required based on the district’s data of COVID and to help the district maintain in-class instruction.
Thalheimer noted that the number of close contacts for the COVID-19 pandemic this week is higher than it was anytime last year. Meanwhile, the number of positive cases is just a dozen under the highest number of cases the district saw in December, he said.
As of Wednesday, there are currently has 35 confirmed cases of students, five confirmed cases in staff members and 218 identified close contacts, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.
“If we have an excessive number of staff out because of close contact or (being) positive themselves, or symptomatic, that’s going to put us in a position where keeping them in schools could be very tenuous,” he said.
Masks will be optional outdoors and would not be required while eating or drinking.
Elkhart is the second public school district in the county to issue a mask mandate after Goshen. Baugo Community Schools was scheduled to consider a modification to its reentry plan at an emergency meeting Wednesday night.
The moves come a week after the Elkhart County Health Department recommended all schools consider reinstating their mask policy to limit the spread of the delta variant.
County Health Officer Bethany Wait last week said the county was experiencing a rise in the number of positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and was nearing an orange advisory level.
During the public-comment session of the board meeting, about 10 parents, teachers and staff spoke, many of whom expressed their support for a district-wide mask mandate.
One parent, Mikki Taylor, who has a daughter who attends Elkhart High School, said she feels strongly about masks being required in schools to help ensure there are no disruptions like last year.
“This needs to not be political, but a wisdom-based decision,” she told the board. “We want our kids in school. My daughter is a senior and I want her to graduate and for my parents to attend graduation to see her. I don’t want graduation to be limited to two people attending. I think the only way we can do this safely is if we have masks.”
But if the goal is to keep students in school, the past week has shown that’s not likely to happen, said Laura Miller, a school nurse at Eastwood Elementary School.
Miller said she sent six students home on Monday and seven on Tuesday, some of whom she believes will test positive for the virus.
“The goal of keeping these kids in school is not working,” she said. “I wear my mask because I want to protect these children and protect them as well as I can. I think they need to learn to step up temporarily to a crisis and be part of the solution, not the problem. And, I think it’s empowering to be part of that solution. This can be contained if we wear masks.”
Some parents were on board with keeping the policy mask-optional.
Amber Hart, a parent of four children who attend ECS, said she believes requiring masks last year, in some ways, led to harassment from staff to students.
“For some staff, it quickly went from gently asking these students to follow the rules and then turned into snapping, demanding and threatening children with what seemed like very scary consequences for them,” she said. “That sent three of my four children home bawling almost every day.”
Julie Tyrakowski, a math teacher at Elkhart High School, who has two children who attend the district, said she’s not completely opposed to the mandate, but she hopes it’s enforced across the board, which includes sports.
“We cannot enforce this and say that this is important if it’s only a part-time thing,” she told the board. “Student sections need to wear masks, everybody in the stands needs to wear masks. So I’m on board if that’s what you decide, but it better be all the time, otherwise it becomes discriminatory.”
Lack of transparency
Many attendees criticized the school board, citing a lack of transparency for adding the vote for the mask mandate to the agenda at the last minute during the meeting. Had the item been on the original agenda, many more would have shown up to the meeting, attendees said.
School board member Doug Weaver agreed and made a motion to move the mask vote to Thursday, adding that it was irresponsible and not transparent to let the public know of the vote before the meeting. The motion failed with a 4-3 vote, with board members Weaver, Anne VonDerVellen and Kellie Mullins voting in favor of it.
School board president Rocky Enfield said, from a personal standpoint, he does not like masks, but he can’t make decisions based on personal feelings.
“I have to make a decision based on what’s best for 12,000 students and 2,000 staff and a lot of them aren’t going to agree with the decisions I make either,” he said. “It broke our hearts last year when the kids could not be in school and the stories of children who suffered when they weren’t in the classroom. Now we have to decide on what’s going to keep kids in the classroom.”
In the end, the motion for a mask mandate narrowly passed, with VonDerVellen, Mullins and Weaver casting the dissenting votes.
Thalheimer said the situation is fluid and the district would be revisiting the situation weekly.
“We’ll be looking at what’s happening in terms of numbers in our buildings, the color-coded system from the county, and all the factors we looked at last year in terms of building closures,” he said. “We hope we don’t arrive at a place where we have a closure, but we would look at many of those as indicators on whether we arrive at a place where students can remove their masks.”