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NACS School Board Hears Several Hours of Public Comments Following Weeks of Controversy

What started as a debate over mask mandates in schools led to a backlash from the LGBTQ+ community following a board members comments. Groups of students, parents and residents brought various signs showing support for their causes on April 27, 2021.

The Northeast Allen County Board passed a resolution to continue with its original reopening plan from July Monday amid continued tensions over masks.

The board heard nearly three hours of public comments from parents, students and residents during the meeting. The resolution, however, was approved before those comments began.

The resolution grants the superintendent powers to continue the original reopening plans through the first semester of the 2021-2022 school year. It also stipulates that the superintendent can update the plans to comply with any new guidance or mandates;

“The Superintendent is also authorized to update these plans as needed to comply with any subsequent mandate or requirement imposed by a local, state, or federal executive, agency, or legislative body, and if required, have these updates reviewed by the Allen County Department of Health prior to implementation. The Superintendent is further authorized to relax and rescind aspects of the NACS Reopening Plans as appropriate based on local or state conditions as determined by the Governor of Indiana, Indiana Department of Health, and/or the Allen County Department of Health and supported by guidance from the CDC or the American Academy of Pediatrics.”

The resolution also stipulates any changes must be approved by the Allen County Board of Health before being implemented.

There was some debate over school board members not having had enough time to review the resolution before the vote. Board president Kent Somers said they had received it at 3 p.m. on Monday.

“Our current plan is our current plan and I don’t believe we need to change or readopt until we know more or move forward into the summer.”

The resolution passed 3-2 with no votes coming from Somers and board member Steve Bartkus. Several members of the Unmask NACS Students Now group called the resolution “rushed through.” Some parents threatened that they would be sending their kids to school without masks next year, regardless of the board's decisions, and others are considering pulling their students from NACS all together.

The board also passed a resolution approving stipends for employees who worked extra duties due to the pandemic.

While much of the public comment at the meeting was in favor of or against continuing to require students to wear masks, a group of students and parents in rainbow masks showed up to speak out against Bartkus.

At last week’s work session, Bartkus made a controversial statement comparing the choice of wearing a mask to “the choice to be gay or straight.”

One speaker was an alumnus of Carroll High School.

“When I was younger, hearing a comment made like that, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, would have made me feel unsafe, uncomfortable and not want to come to class,” he said.

Three other board members; Ron Felger, Liz Hathaway and Kristi Schlatter released a joint statement over the weekend distancing themselves from Bartkus’ comments; 

“As individual members of the Board of School Trustees of Northwest Allen County Schools, the undersigned stand firmly by our mission to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for all learners. This is true regardless of race, religion, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, native language, or any other protected characteristic. We apologize for the alienating comments made by one school board member at the work session on April 21st. The opinions shared by one board member reflect only his own views and opinions, they are not shared by us individually, and should not be interpreted as those of the board as a whole. We remain committed to equally serve all students, staff and the entire NACS community each and every day.”

Bartkus took a moment to apologize if his comments caused any offense during the meeting.He said the comments were not planned out, but off the cuff.

“They came out of ignorance. I did not intend to hurt anyone’s feelings. We all have different beliefs and I’m just gonna leave it at that. I greatly apologize from the bottom of my heart.”

Several parents called for Bartkus’ resignation.

Board Resolution 20210426-2 Affirming Continued Implementation of the NACS Reopening Plans by Rebecca Green Knight on Scribd

Board Resolution 20210426-1 - Pandemic Stipends With ESSER Funds by Rebecca Green Knight on Scribd

Ella Abbott is a multimedia reporter for 89.1 WBOI. She is a strong believer in the ways audio storytelling can engage an audience and create a sensory experience.
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