By Liz Shepherd
WARSAW — After a two-hour meeting that included opinions from two dozen residents, Warsaw Community Schools’ Board of Trustees voted to require masks for students and staff during the school day.
The vote was 5-1.
A majority of the nearly 200 people in attendance appeared to be against a mask-mandate, with many cheering and clapping for those who spoke in opposition. Some argued that masks don’t prevent the spread of COVID-19; others complained about the impact masks have on their children’s physical and mental health and some parents said the decision on masks should be left to them.
The board meeting was called in response to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s executive order issued last week that, among other things, relaxes a quarantine policy for schools that require masks.
Superintendent Dr. David Hoffert started the meeting by providing statistics from the Kosciusko County Health Department that show COVID-19 is affecting more Kosciusko County children this year than it did a year ago at the same time.
“As we started out the 2021-22 school year, masks were recommended but optional for indoor and in-classroom environments,” said Hoffert. “We felt comfortable on Week One that these were the right recommendations to make. Over the past four weeks, the COVID environment in the schools and communities has changed.”
According to Hoffert, from Aug. 15, 2020, to Aug. 30, 2020, 11 school-age children tested positive for COVID-19. In that same time period this year, 79 students have tested positive.
Since the beginning of the school year, WCS has seen 126 positive COVID-19 cases amongst its students and staff, which has resulted in 320 quarantines.
“The executive order gives two options for schools to follow,” said Hoffert. “Option One is continue as mask optional but inside of that mask option, you must quarantine at the six-foot radius around anybody that is positive, whether they are masked or unmasked. Option 2 is if you do a school-wide mask mandate, you no longer have to close contact quarantine around you.”
Hoffert then read aloud a letter from Kosciusko County Health Officer Dr. William Remington, who said schools have three options: do nothing and let nature take its course; continue with optional masking or move to a universal masking policy. Remington described the first option as “untenable.”
He pointed to evidence that “demonstrates that a fully-masked school could safely operate with very few cases, despite significant community transmission occurring beyond their walls,” read Remington’s letter.
Board Member Mike Coon asked Hoffert about the ramifications with either option available to the board. Hoffert said with Option One, virtual education would occur very quickly and would also affect quarantine numbers and extracurricular activities. The second option would allow for students to only be quarantined if they’re ill and would be similar to how masking worked in the previous school year.
Board Member Brad Johnson read a written statement.
“My biggest issue is that it’s (the executive order) being done specifically to schools and not communities at large,” said Johnson. “Especially when the risk of death of a school-age child is less than 0.0006%. Honestly, a single death of any aged individual is tragic and a school-age child’s death would be catastrophic. However, the likelihood of a child dying in a car accident is 0.005%. It’s almost ten times higher. Am I correct to ascertain that the executive order that the governor has instituted a mask mandate for all school systems without stating such and that we must either fall in line by mandating masks or be prepared to deal with the ramifications?”
Board Vice-President Randy Polston asked if it would be possible to interchange between the options. Hoffert said it would and that the school district could consider returning to masks as optional if Kosciusko County entered the ‘yellow’ category on the state department of health’s website for two weeks.
“Keeping our schools open is the best thing for all of our students,” said Board Member Matt Deuel. “With respect to all the feelings and opinions in this room, we must choose to do whatever we can to keep our schools open. We, as a community, I hope we can rise up and find a way to unite around that.”
Those in attendance were then given the opportunity to address the board with their thoughts on which option the school district should approach. A majority of those who spoke were against requiring masks.
“Why are we still arguing over my child’s face and what goes on her body?” asked Hanna Hodge, Warsaw. “Why is a corporation whose responsibility is to educate my child in a healthy environment still struggling to understand where the decision lies? It’s in my hands. The only difference between you and me as parents is you hold positions that are able to really do something about it.”
“It’s personal freedom, personal choice, and personal responsibility,” said Dana Kohrs, Warsaw. “My son had more health issues with a mask versus without. He has allergies. He couldn’t breathe every night when he came home. I had to get him medicine for basically a self-inflicted wound.”
“The Bible that I read tells me, as a parent, that I am the one who is responsible to make decisions for my children’s health,” said Terry Wood, Warsaw. “I am their parent and their guardian until they reach the age of consent where they’re able to make that decision for themselves. There is no school board, there is no health board, there is no governor that has the right nor the authority to remove my responsibility as a parent to make those decisions.”
“My daughter is high-risk and is on oxygen,” said Angie Leopold. “I do not want her masked. Please do not impose a mask mandate universally for our schools. Do you want to exclude from school those with health exemptions, those with religious exemptions? Schools, kids, they’re germy. We understand this. But it’s worth the risk. It’s worth the risk to see each other, to be near each other, to share smiles. Let’s take this opportunity to have local liberty.”
Some in the crowd asked the board to require masks.
“I want to thank the students because our kids didn’t make it a big deal (last year),” said Amanda Inskeep-Shelton, Warsaw. “If little kids can wear masks seven hours a day, I don’t think it’s going to hurt us to keep them in school because it does help them to keep them there. If people think it’s that big a deal, homeschool your kids. I hope you approve the mask mandate as it stands so we can keep our schools open.”
Another woman compared the current situation to coal miners in the early 1900s releasing canaries in mines to detect for carbon monoxide.
“The week of Aug. 20, child hospitalizations around the country due to COVID increased to levels not seen since January,” she said. “Masks work. Don’t let our children be the canaries in a coal mine.”
Several people also took the opportunity to thank the board for their handling of the pandemic while ensuring students stay in school. Many in attendance for or against a mandate also acknowledged the board had a difficult decision to make on what to do for the students.
Following public comment, WCS’s Board of Trustees voted 5-1 in favor of Hoffert’s proposed second option, with Brad Johnson voting in opposition. Board Member Jeremy Mullins was unable to attend the meeting.
Hoffert said additional information about the mask requirement would be posted online Wednesday, Sept. 8. He said the requirement would more than likely begin on Friday, Sept. 10.