TSC ready for mask-optional, the minute state eases quarantine rules
Wednesday night vote signaled a TSC board weary of dealing with complaints, ready for mask rules to be done, even as health officials warn about a surge coming
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Masks will be optional in Tippecanoe School Corp. classrooms as soon the state lifts quarantine rules for schools, according to a policy the TSC board approved Wednesday night.
When that will happen wasn’t clear. And TSC board members didn’t rule out coming back in a special meeting and dropping mask requirements before then.
But the vote signaled a board weary of dealing with complaints, months after some board members reluctantly agreed to impose masks when the district had to send a large number of students home to quarantine in the first weeks of the school year.
The move also came as state and local health officials were urging people to get vaccinated and wear masks – in all sorts of indoor settings – as daily COVID-19 case numbers climbed into ranges not seen since January at the end of the pandemic’s first big surge in Indiana.
Josh Loggins, a TSC board member, proposed that the board vote to move the district to a mask-optional policy, at the very latest, once the school responsibility for measures around quarantines were dropped.
“At that point in time,” Loggins said, “there will have been enough time for all kids, ages 5 and up, to have received a vaccination, should that family choose.”
Loggins said that by voting now, TSC could proactively react to a change at the state level, when it happens, and not have to call a special board meeting to make a mask-optional policy official.
During its monthly meeting in November, board members had hinted that they were ready, as long as Gov. Eric Holcomb lifted a pandemic-related public health emergency that has been extended and revised, month-by-month, since March 2020. Since that November TSC meeting, Holcomb extended the order through December, when state lawmakers couldn’t agree on provisions he asked for before he would lift the health order.
The wording of TSC’s measure left some confusion among parents anxious to ditch the mask policy. They asked about what specifically would trigger the move and let their kids take off masks in classrooms.
Mark DeYoung, TSC’s attorney, said the board’s decision wasn’t limited to the governor’s order.
“I think what it said is that it’s when the school’s responsibility regarding control measures around addressing quarantines is gone – and we’ll have to wait and see what that looks like, whether it’s a governor’s order, a State Department of Health decision or what,” DeYoung said. “We’ll have to know that when we see that in the future.”
Loggins said if someone wanted to call a special meeting prior to that and make changes to the district’s mask policy, “there’s nothing said that it couldn’t be done earlier.”
“I think by the board voting and taking action on that shows what the board’s feeling is toward where we’d like to be,” Loggins said.
That brought comments from parents in the audience: “Let’s go there.”
Earlier in the meeting, parents who have been attending TSC meetings since the summer echoed earlier calls to go further than it eventually did Wednesday night.
“Let’s take a stand,” Nate Vincent told the board, encouraging TSC to lift mask rules immediately and not wait on Holcomb or the state health department. “It’s time to start pushing back.”
Jake Burton, a TSC board member, said he’d found other school districts had gone mask-optional. He said he thought the board was going to vote on that sort of policy Wednesday.
“But this is better than nothing,” Burton said.
TSC opened the school year with masks optional, affirming that policy against the advice of the district’s physician in a contentious 4-3 vote before a packed room on Aug. 4, a week before classes started. Less than two weeks into the year, county health officials noted that TSC students were being told to quarantine at rates eight times greater than those in neighboring Lafayette School Corp., even though the rates of actual positive COVID cases were similar between the districts. The difference: LSC had started the year requiring masks.
State quarantine guidelines at the time widened the scope of contact tracing efforts from three-foot radius when masks were in use to a six-foot radius when they weren’t. (That’s a difference between 28 square feet and 113 square feet.)
Facing those quarantine numbers – and hoping to keep kids in schools – the board voted 6-1 to require masks on Aug. 23. Pressure to reverse that decision hasn’t ended since.
By Sept. 1, Holcomb’s health order allowed schools with strict mask policies to keep students in class, rather than quarantining them, if they had close contact with someone with COVID-19.
At TSC, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among students and staff have been climbing in recent weeks, as they have across Tippecanoe County, according to figures reported by Doug Allison, TSC’s assistant superintendent for personnel.
In the three weeks before Thanksgiving week, TSC reported 41, 71 and 93 cases. After reported 56 during the short Thanksgiving week, TSC had 104 positive cases the next week, Allison told the board. Of those, 93 were students, he said. In that time, the TSC cases had 399 close contacts. Of those, 274 were able to stay in school, Allison said.
Earlier Wednesday, Dr. Jeremy Adler, Tippecanoe County’s health officer, said he’d been contacted by TSC Superintendent Scott Hanback for his take on the mask question.
“I shared my recommendation with him that because our cases are increasing so rapidly that they continue to require masks in their schools,” Adler said.
As health officer, Adler isn’t in a position to impose a mask mandate for schools or in the community. That authority lies with Tippecanoe County commissioners. On Wednesday, Adler had not asked commissioners to consider mask requirements or other health orders.
MEANWHILE, IN OTHER COMMUNITY COVID NEWS …
Here are a few takeaways from a pandemic update county health leaders offered Wednesday.
THE LOCAL SITUATION: Tippecanoe County’s seven-day average, as of Wednesday, was 140 new cases a day, according to state figures. That includes 160 new cases reported Wednesday. One month earlier, the seven-day average was 43 new cases a day. Adler said no case of the emerging Omicron variant had been reported here, yet.
“It would be wonderful if this was the peak and it started to go down from here,” Adler said. “But other indicators say it’s going to rise.”
VACCINATION RATES: As of Wednesday, 104,811 Tippecanoe County residents were fully vaccinated, Adler said. That was 56.4% of the population. Of those, 30,426 had their boosters.
HOSPITAL CASES CONTINUE TO CLIMB, TOO: Doctors at Lafayette’s Franciscan Health and IU Health Arnett hospitals have been sounding alarms for weeks, as a surge in cases translate into full hospitals.
Dr. Christopher Mansfield, from IU Health Arnett, said the hospital was converting its ambulance bay into an emergency room processing area. He said that will ease some of the pressure in a hospital that has been essentially full in recent weeks, largely because of a run-up of COVID patients.
At IU Health, COVID cases were up from 23 just before Thanksgiving, to 40 the Monday after Thanksgiving, to 50 on Wednesday, Mansfield said.
Franciscan Health Lafayette had 48 COVID patients, as of Wednesday, Dr. Daniel Wickert said. That was up from 21 just before Thanksgiving. Of those 48, 19 were in the intensive care unit and nine were on ventilators.
Both hospitals reported that more than 90% of the patients they were treating for COVID were unvaccinated. Both hospitals put new limits on elective surgeries that required overnight stays, because there wasn’t room.
AT PURDUE: Numbers on campus have been tracing those in the community, Dr. Esteban Ramirez with Protect Purdue. On a campus where 88% of students, staff and faculty have presented proof of vaccination, active cases have climbed to 216 on campus, according to Wednesday’s figures on the Protect Purdue dashboard. Ramirez said positivity rates in campus testing have gone from a 1.3% average this semester to 2.95% in the past week.
Ramirez the trends are different this year compared to last, based on contact tracing for campus cases. Classroom cases aren’t a problem again this year. But congregate housing – sororities, fraternities and cooperative houses – that would trouble spots last school year aren’t the same sort of problem. He said the biggest issue in recent weeks have been with students who traveled to see family.
Asked if Purdue could reasonably count on relaxing its mask rules on Feb. 1, as President Mitch Daniels said a month ago the university was hoping to do, Ramirez said: “We’re going to be watching these numbers very closely in the next couple of months. Obviously, we are not going to relax any sort of masking requirements at this point, given what we’re seeing.”
Ramirez said Purdue was encouraging people to get a vaccination booster. But he said the university hasn’t required it. For the fall semester, Purdue required students, staff and employees to show proof of they’d been vaccinated or agree to be tested for COVID on a regular basis.
MASKS UP, MASKS DOWN AT MACKEY: A week ago, doctors at the hospitals said they were concerned about seeing sold out crowds at Mackey Arena so lax about wearing masks. Purdue requires them for basketball games. But Daniels told faculty members who raised similar questions in November:
“The issue is one with which every school in the country with an indoor athletics program is faced. The majority of attendees at the basketball games are guests, not students, faculty or staff. Since we can’t eject thousands of people individually from the games, our option is to cancel the basketball season, which we would be reluctant to do.”
Ramirez was asked if that stance had changed, as case numbers went up on campus. He said he was in on those conversations but that it “multiple different groups” help make those decisions.
What was his recommendation in those campus meetings?
“Our recommendation is everyone should be wearing masks,” Ramirez said. “I think if you go into Mackey, we have that plastered everywhere, we even have video footage. But as you know, you can be told something, it doesn’t mean you’ll do it. Our university standpoint is, please, wear a mask. You’re currently risking the potential of this team that’s (No. 1 in the nation) to potentially get sick and get knocked out of contention because of our own selfish risks. I think it would be a shame for our team to not have that opportunity because people didn’t mask up.”
THIS AND THAT …
HEADS UP ON YOUR MORNING COMMUTE: A new traffic light at Indiana 38 and Park East Boulevard goes live Thursday, the city says. A short extension of Park East Boulevard will open between Indiana 38 and Haggerty Lane this week, the city reported Wednesday. That project, eventually will feed a new stretch of Park East Boulevard between Haggerty Lane and McCarty Lane. That will have Park East Boulevard running from South Street to Indiana 38. “Within the next few years, once the last connection is made between Haggerty Lane and McCarty Lane, Park East Boulevard will also provide tremendous relief to the Creasy Lane corridor,” Jeromy Grenard, Lafayette city engineer, said.
Thanks again to the Long Center for the Performing Arts for its sponsorship of today’s edition. For ticket information, click on any of the shows below.