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TSC bucks school trend, votes down mask requirements
Tippecanoe School Corp. board votes 4-3 to reject CDC and local health department recommendation to require masks in its K-12 schools as COVID-19 cases rise
As neighboring school districts, Purdue University and Ivy Tech Community College adjusted reopening plans this week to require masks in classrooms and buildings, the Tippecanoe School Corp. board bucked fresh CDC recommendations for K-12 schools Wednesday, voting in a special meeting to keep a mask-optional policy when schools open next week.
In a 4-3 vote, in front of a standing-room-only crowd in the TSC administrative building, the board rejected a reopening plan update recommended by the Tippecanoe County Health Department, the CDC and the district’s doctor to require masks for students, staff, teachers and visitors.
The vote came after no public comment – TSC board president Patrick Hein said the board had fielded hours of testimony during its July meeting and had gone through hundreds of emails ahead of Wednesday’s meeting – and was greeted by extended applause and boos by parents there to listen. The audience, nearly half carrying homemade anti-mask signs, remained civil.
The vote split with board members Josh Loggins, Jake Burton, Julia Cummings and Brian DeFreese voting no, essentially in favor of a policy TSC approved in June. Hein, Linda Day and Steve Chidalek voted in favor of the plan, proposed as cases of COVID-19, fueled by a more-contagious delta variant of the virus, grew in Tippecanoe County. The county’s vaccination rate was 47 percent of the total population as of Wednesday, according to the county health department.
The board did not consider a proposal, pushed in a petition by more than 200 parents and teachers, to require masks in TSC’s K-6 elementary schools, given that children younger than 12 have not been cleared to receive any of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Loggins, who said he plans to send his children, 9 and 11, to school with masks, said he couldn’t vote for a mandatory policy if the district didn’t offer parents the option of virtual attendance, as TSC did during the 2020-21 school year. TSC’s reopening plan is built around an in-person classroom experience.
“What we're doing is we're missing the boat in the sense that this shouldn't be about masks, but about providing the most opportunity for all students to get an education through TSC,” Loggins said. “I don't believe that, in this situation, we have that choice. And so for that reason, I don't feel comfortable voting yes for the plan.”
Burton said the majority of his inbox was in favor of an optional plan.
“The one issue that continues to weigh heavily on my mind, is the mental stress placed on children, because they're forced to wear a mask last year,” Burton said.
Hein said the board should pay attention to the science that shows the pandemic hasn’t let up, yet, to hospitals who are pleading for people to get vaccinated as they deal with growing numbers of COVID-19 cases among the unvaccinated and to the doctors who say masks are a good idea right now. Day said the board had an obligation to something more than personal choice.
“If this were just a matter of personal rights, that affected only the individual making the decision or the choice, I would say: Absolutely. No masks,” Day said. “But that isn’t the world that we’re living in. We live in a community. And as a part of the community, I believe that we all have a certain responsibility to our neighbors, our neighbors’ children, as well as to those that we hold dear.”
DeFreese – who said he was torn about how to vote, right up until his name was called – asked if there was a way to start the year with masks optional and then pivot if cases started popping. Day asked who would make that determination, when the corporation’s doctor already was advising that starting with masks was the right decision.
“I’m listening to the experts,” Chidalek said. “The vaccination rate (in the county) is too low to not mandate that policy.”
This week, West Lafayette schools went to a mask requirement for all its schools, after an initial policy that mandated them for K-6 grades only. Lafayette School Corp. did the same thing, starting Aug. 9, after initially approving a mask-optional system.
After the TSC vote, Hein said the board reserved the right to revisit the policy.
If that happens, Jen Sanders, a parent of students at Wea Ridge Elementary and McCutcheon High School, said she’d pull her kids and home school them.
“It’s my child, my choice,” Sanders said after the meeting. “That is a medical device. Medical decisions are not one-choice-fits-all.”
Sanders said she was a substitute in TSC schools last year and saw students struggling to cope with wearing a mask all the time.
Mark Thompson, a parent of a McCutcheon junior and a Faith Christian freshman, led a prayer in the audience five minutes before the meeting started, asking for calm and for divine guidance for the board.
“I’m not anti-mask – put a mask on your child and I’m fine with that,” said Thompson, who enrolled his daughter at Faith Christian after encountering his son’s biology texts that included evolution with no mention of creationism. “But I’m a patriot. Patriots have died for our freedoms. That’s why we left England, for religious freedom. I believe parents have been given responsibility by God to lead and guide their children. … I’m glad the school board saw it that way, too.”
Thomas Fech didn’t carry a sign, but he wore a black face covering that read, “Mask Please.”
“The parents with signs in there that said, ‘My body, my choice,’ they’re being selfish,” Fech, who has three children under 12 at East Tipp Middle and Hershey Elementary, said. “They had a choice to get a vaccine or not. My kids don’t. … I hope the board holds another meeting before school starts to rethink this.”
Ulrika Dydak, who has a son at Klondike Elementary and a daughter at Harrison High School, said the board missed a chance at a middle ground. Masks beat the possibility of another shutdown or quarantines if the pandemic gets out of control.
“Why do we have to wait until kids get sick before we do something sensible?” Dydak asked. “It makes no sense. … Purdue, a major university that understands science, changed its policy. West Lafayette changed. Lafayette changed. Why is our school district not following the science?”
Jennifer Dobbs-Oates, a TSC parent who organized the petition for masks in K-6 schools, monitored the meeting from afar Wednesday night. She said the board’s reopening policy promised to be guided by medical experts, “yet the board ignores their expertise.”
“I’m extremely disappointed,” Dobbs-Oates said.
“Board members tonight talked about how they didn't want to exclude anyone from a TSC education,” Dobbs-Oates said. “And yet they chose a policy that is unsafe for the most vulnerable students, and a policy that makes quarantines and school shutdowns more likely. That doesn't sound like a board who is truly motivated by making education available to all. What kind of school district doesn't value scientific expertise or educational access? It really damages my faith in TSC.”
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