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TSC drops mask requirements for classrooms, starting Monday
Plus, video of arrest at Purdue goes viral. Tensions build in Fairfield Twp as board tells Trustee Taletha Coles to back off ambulance talk. And the last straw for county's health administrator
Thanks this morning to new Based in Lafayette reporting project sponsor Barash Law for support to help make this edition possible.
Students in Tippecanoe School Corp. won’t have to wear masks, starting Monday, Feb. 14, a change in COVID-era policy approved on a 4-3 school board vote Wednesday night.
Under pressure since last summer to end the policy, TSC will be the first public school district in Greater Lafayette to drop mask requirements in classrooms and other indoor settings.
The trade-off: The district will return to state guidelines on contact tracing and five-day quarantines for unvaccinated students who are within six feet in a classroom of someone who tests positive – something that had been lifted for schools that had mask-required policies.
The 4-3 vote, following a motion by board member Jake Burton, met with applause from parents and grandparents who have been lobbying the school board for months to buck state requirements and ditch mask rules.
The board cited receding COVID numbers after this winter’s surge driven by the Omicron variant and the availability of vaccinations for school-age children.
The vote came out this way: Burton, Josh Loggins, Julie Cummings and Brian DeFreese in favor; Brad Anderson, Linda Day and Patrick Hein opposed.
“We’ve been in a situation for two years where our kids have not been able to be kids,” Loggins said after the vote.
“There’s an opportunity that we have in the sense that our numbers have decreased dramatically over the past three or four weeks,” Loggins said. “None of us want to put any more burden on our administrators or our staff, but I think everyone – including our administrators and staff – want our kids to have as much normalcy in their life as they possibly can within our educational system. This was an opportunity for us to go down that path.”
TSC opened the school year in August with mask-optional rules. But it transitioned to mask requirements after the first week-and-a-half of class when the state widened contact tracing and quarantine guidelines – meant to identify potential cases, isolate them and slow the spread – from a three-foot radius when masks were in use in schools to a six-foot radius when they weren’t. In the opening weeks of school, TSC’s quarantines forced students home at rates eight times greater than neighboring Lafayette and West Lafayette schools, which required masks.
Each time the TSC board reconsidered the policy — often in heated public meetings — an effort to keep kids in class was the deciding factor.
In January, the state told schools they didn’t have to contact trace cases or quarantine students in close contact, if the school had masks required. TSC Superintendent Scott Hanback told board members it had been a relief for principals and school nurses to drop that duty, which he said had become an overwhelming, 24/7 job during the peak of the recent COVID surge.
Cases among the 14,000 TSC students have reflected trends across the county, Hanback said. In recent weeks, student cases have dropped from 489 to 316 to 280 to 130 to a projected 60 this week.
Tippecanoe County’s seven-day average was 99 new cases a day in the most recent state health department report. That’s down from a peak of an average of 541 new cases a day, set on Jan. 21.
Doug Allison, TSC’s assistant superintendent for personnel, said that when the contact tracing radius was six feet, TSC was averaging 13.8 quarantines per confirmed COVID case. By that figure, this week’s quarantines from 60 confirmed cases would have been as many as 828 students, depending on how many were vaccinated.
“You’re kind of making a decision here between masks and quarantines,” Hanback said.
Among parents who spoke, several encouraged the board to ignore the state guidelines, which have been baked into a series of month-by-month health emergency declarations from Gov. Eric Holcomb, dating to March 2020.
“Take a stand, and do the right thing,” parent Gretchen Diehls said.
The TSC board’s vote didn’t go that far.
“Things have changed since we voted for the mask mandate, and we’ve always tried to do what’s best for the kids,” DeFreese said. “We hope that’s what we did tonight.”
VIDEO OF ARREST AT PURDUE GOES VIRAL
Video of a Purdue police officer pushing his forearm into the face and neck of a Purdue student pinned against a snowbank was making the rounds on social media and in university circles Wednesday.
Purdue Police Chief John Cox said the incident happened Friday night after police were called by someone who “stated that it appeared a woman was being held against her will near Horticulture Drive.” The Purdue Exponent identified police Officer Jon Selke as the one pushing Adonis Tuggle, a Purdue junior, into the pile of snow. Police told The Exponent that Tuggle resisted arrest. Video at the scene – the Exponent reported Nicole Dubish, Tuggle’s girlfriend – shows the officer pinning Tuggle, who is Black, as a woman tells the officer that she is recording and that he’s choking Tuggle.
In a university release Wednesday, Cox said that “no physical injuries were suffered in the incident.” Cox said an internal investigation would “include input from all witnesses to the arrest and take into account all available evidence, including video from officers’ body-worn cameras and statements from the students involved.” Cox said video from officers’ body cameras would be available when the internal review is done.
FAIRFIELD TOWNSHIP TENSION BUILDS, AS BOARD TELLS TRUSTEE TALETHA COLES NOT TO PURSUE AMBULANCE SERVICE
During an October 2021 meeting meant to finalize a 2022 budget – the one where Fairfield Township Trustee Taletha Coles made laps around a conference table, trading jabs and insults about who was running things, her or the township board – Coles mentioned she knew where she could pick up a used ambulance for $60,000.
Coles had floated the idea of assembling an ambulance service for the Lafayette-based township, hinting that she’d heard service could be better in the unincorporated parts of the township covered by a mutual aid agreement with Tippecanoe County. Now, with previous hopes to build a fire station just northeast of Lafayette throttled by the board, she had a vehicle that could get an ambulance service started.
A sampling of the response from her board: “Terrible idea, just for the record.” Followed by questions about her research, the township’s ability to staff a service and various iterations of: Please, don’t.
Tuesday night, the three-member township board looked to lock that admonition in place with a resolution that specifically laid out that the trustee “has no authority to form either another ambulance service or any fire response system” for the township.
The resolution also directed Coles to put $100,000 to the Lafayette Fire Department for equipment needs, something the township had done since the mid-2000s. Coles hasn’t followed through on that in the past two years, despite similar direction from the township board.
The underlying concern has been Coles’ reluctance to share details of how she spends township money.
That was amplified several times during her first three years in office, including the purchase of a pickup truck and a trailer on the last day of 2019 from money that had been set aside for what turned out to be a failed property purchase. The board also discovered in spring 2020 that Coles had been negotiating to buy land along Fourth Street from Imagination Station to build a pocket park. Board members said they found out about it during a meeting, when Imagination Station leaders asked about potential closing dates.
The State Board of Accounts started an audit of the trustee’s books in August 2021. In January, Indiana State Police delivered Fairfield Township records to the State Board of Accounts. An official there confirmed the state agency expected to keep the records – including, vehicle titles, bank statements, financial ledgers, vendor invoices to support disbursements, receipts, payroll records and death certificates – until March.
The opportunity to buy a $60,000 used ambulance seemed to be in the realm of possibility, based on board conversations Tuesday night.
“There has been talk about trying to purchase an ambulance, and it has been like a red herring being thrown out for no particular reason,” Rocky Hession, a Fairfield Township Board, said during a meeting held at the Northend Community Center, while the board remains locked out of the township offices on Wabash Avenue.
“It's not our job to look for ambulances, it's not our job to form a fire department or build a fire department of any nature,” Hession said. “It's already been taken care of by agencies, already in place. And this would just cement that.”
Tuesday night, Coles arrived after the meeting started and sat in a corner near the board’s table, taking notes and shaking her head.
Her point: What they were telling her to do was her business, not theirs.
“This isn’t necessary,” Coles said.
“You say that, but it is our business,” Perry Schnarr, the board president, said.
Schnarr asked Coles why she wouldn’t do as the board asked and help fund the Lafayette Fire Department. Lafayette firefighters respond to emergency calls in the unincorporated parts of Fairfield Township – essentially north and east of Interstate 65, and along the Hoosier Heartland Highway – according to a longstanding agreement.
LFD Chief Richard Doyle, who was at Tuesday’s meeting, said that agreement changed in 2007, when Fairfield Township made a large purchase of equipment and the deal was that the Lafayette Fire Department to provide services forever. In more recent years, the previous township trustee, now County Clerk Julie Roush, worked with Doyle to buy specific equipment or other needs with $100,000 a year.
Doyle said he understood the township owed the fire department nothing. But when he’d met with Coles early in her term, he’d presented the idea of saving the $100,000 to buy a second set of bunker gear for all firefighters, so it could be cleaned more frequently. (According to Doyle, Coles instead asked about buying a helicopter to fight fires. Coles later said she made the suggestion, but wasn’t serious.)
Coles signed off on the $100,000 payment in early 2019, soon after she took office, according to Doyle. She hasn’t done the same for 2020 or 2021. She said Tuesday it was the board’s fault. How, she didn’t say.
Coles said last summer she didn’t like that township money went to the fire department with no strings attached, for use in any way the chief decided to use it. Doyle said Tuesday he was open to provide accounting, just as he did for all purchases done at the city.
“I want to know where our money's going,” Coles said. “Everyone else is accountable for how they get money.”
“So, in other words,” Schnarr said, “you want receipts from Chief Doyle, but you won’t give any receipts from you.”
Coles said the two things were different subjects. Schnarr said they were exactly the same thing.
“You don’t want an answer,” Coles said. “You just want to make me look bad.”
Unincorporated Fairfield Township residents paid a tax of 8.14 cents per $100 in assessed valuation for fire protection – which costs a homeowner with an assessment of $100,000 roughly $81 a year and was expected to raise $204,431 in 2021, according to the Department of Local Government Finance. Hession called it unfair to collect that money and not put it toward firefighters who cover the township.
Coles said she’d give her annual financial report later this month, as required by the state, “at my own meeting.” Tuesday evening, she declined to give a date for that, where it would be held or where she’d post a notice that it was happening.
After the meeting, Coles also declined to discuss the ongoing state audit or her decision to file last week for re-election. (She faces Hession and board member Monica Casanova in the Democratic primary; the winner in the May primary would face Republican April O’Brien in the November general election.)
Coles said she had another meeting to get to and left.
Casanova, appointed in December to fill a vacancy on the township board, said the meeting was a lot to take in.
"I'm surprised how hostile they can be with each other,” Casanova said.
LAST STRAW FOR TIPPECANOE CO. HEALTH DEPARTMENT ADMINISTRATOR
Khala Hochstedler, who oversaw Tippecanoe County’s vaccine clinic and much of the county’s response during the COVID pandemic, stepped down Wednesday as the county health department’s administrator.
Hochstedler said she’d been contemplating the move since August, when the toll of managing a health department response and fielding the blowback that came with it – including, she said, death threats mailed to her home and intimidating calls on her personal phone – started to take its toll. She said it had become a seven-day-a-week job since before Tippecanoe County had its first case, in early 2020.
The final straw came Tuesday during a Tippecanoe County Council meeting. She said she’d put in notice six weeks ago that she planned to leave the post, conditioned on the prospects of getting some hazard pay for nearly two dozen health department employees who had staffed parts of the county’s vaccine response since 2020.
That morning, the Tippecanoe County Council held off on a recommendation to use $99,800 for staff bonuses from a $287,000 state grant the health department received to help cover costs of vaccine distribution.
Dr. Jeremy Adler, the county’s health officer, and Hochstedler pitched the idea after the county prosecutor used a different grant a month earlier to give bonuses to staff pressed in 2021 to catch up with court hearing delayed during the shutdown months of 2020.
Several county council members questioned whether they would have to offer bonuses to other county employees, including police, jailers and emergency management staff.
“That’s the job you’re assigned to do,” John Basham, county council member, said.
The council pushed a decision to March, to give time to make sure staff bonuses could come from the grant and to discuss whether the county needed to think of a broader hazard pay system tied to the pandemic.
When County Auditor Bob Plantenga told Hochstedler that she didn’t need to submit a request for the next meeting, she answered: “I won’t be here next month.”
“It all added up,” Hochstedler said Wednesday afternoon, before clocking out after eight years with the health department and more than two as administrator. Before COVID, she was nursing supervisor and was central to the introduction of the county’s controversial syringe exchange.
“My goal has been to do the best that I can, so that when my grandkids looked back on this and asked, ‘Hey, how was it when you lived through that pandemic?’ I could truly say that I did the best job I could for this community,” Hochstedler said. “There hasn’t been a let up. … I hear that everyone understands. I hear, ‘Thank you for your service.’ But at some point, thank you is not enough.”
She said she’s taking another job in the health field, though she didn’t specify what it was. Adler did not immediately respond to questions about who would lead the health department.
Thanks, again, to new Based in Lafayette sponsor Barash Law for helping make this edition possible.
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