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NACS board votes to extend mask mandate through break


The Northwest Allen County Schools board of trustees voted to extend the district’s mask mandate until winter break following a heated discussion Wednesday.


The extension passed with a 3-2 vote, the only nays coming from board president Kent Sommers and board member Steve Bartkus. Sommers and Bartkus have both expressed hesitancy to require masks in the schools in the past.


The decision extends the mask mandate which was put in place about a month into the new school year when COVID cases and student quarantines were high.


Superintendent Chris Himsel spoke at the meeting in favor of keeping the mandate through the holiday due to a decrease in quarantines.


“We’ve dropped from 1,290 through the first 18 days to 201 through the last 27 days,” Himsel said, presenting the update to the board.


Himsel did say the drop in quarantines could also be due to the state changing the procedures for quarantines, but also noted those changes are only in place if the district requires masking.


According to state guidelines, if everyone is masked around a student who tests positive for COVID-19, only those with prolonged contact less than three feet away need to monitor for symptoms and quarantine if symptoms appear. Without masks, anyone with prolonged contact less than six feet away must quarantine.


Bartkus and Sommers questioned the validity of the drop in quarantine numbers, suggesting they take some time without masks required to compare numbers.


Bartkus also took issue with the way testing is being done in NACS schools.


“I mean, it’s like the people that want to fight are looking for a child who has it,” Bartkus said during the meeting Wednesday. “They’re just searching for these cases. ‘Make sure that we find the cases, make sure that we’re after them,’ instead of just doing your job and teaching a class or doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Just let things go, instead of trying to find something.”


Sommers questioned what would happen if the district decided to ignore the state’s rules about quarantine. The board’s legal counsel, Mark Scrudder of Barnes & Thornburg, cautioned that it could lead to the district being sued by the state.


Last month, NACS paused public comment at meetings due to a security concern from the Allen County Sheriff's Department. The meeting on Wednesday was moved to a virtual format which could be livestreamed on the district’s YouTube channel for the same reasons.


Masks have been a hot button issue for the district over the past year, with many parents feeling passionate about both sides of the issue. A group of parents is currently suing the district, as well as other state and local officials, over the requirement of masks.


Earlier this year, Bartkus came under fire for defending the choice to wear a mask by comparing it to the “choice” to be gay. The comment, as well as continued discussions about masks, led to nearly three hours of public comment for masks, against masks and about Bartkus’ comment in April.


The entire meeing can be streamed on the district's YouTube channel.

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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