TSC grumbles, rethinks, requires masks in classrooms after quarantines spike
Board gives in to a mask mandate for more than 13,000 students after 388 quarantines in the first week of school. Board members question quarantine rules, whether they are necessary
Faced with COVID-19-releated quarantine rates that were eight times greater than in neighboring Lafayette schools – and with some school board members harboring doubts about how effective masks are and whether state contact tracing procedures were fair – the Tippecanoe School Corp. board reversed course Monday morning, instituting a mask mandate for classrooms and other indoor spaces.
Letters went to parents by lunchtime, explaining that masks would be expected for students, staff and teachers, regardless of vaccination status, starting Wednesday.
One parent wearing a light blue “Freedom (over) Fear” T-shirt left the meeting at the TSC Administrative Center in Lafayette, handing out a standard form used to withdraw students from class for home schooling. She had several takers.
Nearby, Brent Jesiek, a TSC parent of three children, stood in the TSC parking lot, as bus drivers rolled in from routes to start the third week of school, and said: “It’s about time.”
The 6-1 vote came during an emergency meeting called over the weekend, after the Tippecanoe County Health Department released figures Friday that showed TSC had 388 people – mostly students, according to health officials – quarantined after close contact with someone with COVID-19.
Even factoring in TSC’s larger enrollment – it is the 11th biggest school corporation in Indiana – and an actual COVID case rate that was similar or lower than neighboring districts, TSC’s quarantine rate was three times higher than that in West Lafayette and eight times greater than in Lafayette School Corp.
The big difference: Masking policies.
LSC and West Lafayette require masks. TSC started the year by making masks optional. State quarantine guidelines widen the scope of contact tracing efforts from three-foot radius when masks are in use to a six-foot radius when they aren’t. (That’s a difference between 28 square feet and 113 square feet.)
Several board members who had voted 4-3 on Aug. 4 – and then reaffirmed their stances at an Aug. 11 meeting that saw 65 people weigh in during public comments – for a mask-optional policy said they were switching their votes to keep as many kids in school as possible. (Board member Julia Cummings voted no.)
“Most kids are going to be real followers and say, ‘All right, I’ll put a mask on,’” Josh Loggins, a board member who initially voted for a mask-optional policy, said.
“The big issue and the big topic to be discussed about how do we keep most kids in school,” Loggins said. “How can you do that? I think regardless of what side of the masks (issue) we’ve been on, we all are agreeing that 388 kids out of school in eight days is a problem.”
Board member Steve Chidalek said that “from the get-go” it had not been a hard decision for him.
“Some of us are worried about the 20% of people not wearing masks because they refuse to,” Chidalek said. “We should hand them masks at the doors, and if they still refuse, well, almost shame on them for not thinking about other people. … I don’t want to go to bed at night thinking we lost a student to COVID.”
Board member Jake Burton said he still wasn’t sold on the idea that masks prevent the spread of the virus. Burton said he wasn’t voting yes for a mask requirement out of fear that students would get COVID, but that kids would miss school “because of the quarantine guideline established by the (Indiana State Department of Health).”
Burton ran some of the numbers, calculating that the days missed for the first round of quarantines reported so far would combine for the equivalent of lost school years for 17 students. He said that was unacceptable.
“Actually, it is my belief that the quarantine guidelines should be eliminated,” Burton said. “Why doesn’t the IDOH make us follow the same close contact guidelines for the flu? … Until the quarantine guidelines are abolished, there will be no end in sight.”
Before Monday’s vote, Loggins asked Superintendent Scott Hanback to look into whether TSC had flexibility to adjust quarantine guidelines. Loggins requested the information, including the difference between rules for K-12 schools and those for Purdue University, in time for the next TSC board meeting, scheduled for Sept. 8.
Hanback said that other than the masking rules, TSC had been following CDC, state and county health guidelines “to a T.” He said the board had discretion on mask policies. Hanback said he didn’t believe the district would have the same discretion on contact tracing and quarantines.
After the meeting, Khala Hochstedler, Tippecanoe County Health Department administrator, said it had been “very hard to keep up” contact tracing for school cases during the first two weeks of school.
“Especially in TSC,” Hochstedler said. “And especially in the middle schools and the high schools, where you have kids going from one class to another. When you’re talking about six feet, when you don’t have masks, you’re going to get so many close contacts that way. So many.”
The scene at TSC through a series of meetings in August has been playing out across the state, as school boards reassess reopening plans with the rise in COVID-19 cases, driven by the Delta variant of the virus this summer. Seven-day averages for cases have been running four and five times greater in the past week than they were in early July for Tippecanoe County. Lead doctors at Lafayette’s two hospitals have told about full beds and staffing shortages that, while not totally caused by COVID-19 cases, have been exacerbated by a pandemic surging, again.
Dr. Jim Bien, chief medical officer at IU Health Arnett Hospital, openly pleaded with TSC to mask-up, saying it could only help the hospitals situation.
Last year, Gov. Eric Holcomb mandated masks for most of the school year. This year, Holcomb has backed school districts imposing mask requirements, but he left those decisions to the local level.
Tippecanoe County commissioners also have resisted getting in the middle of the K-12 debates, even though they have that power to issue a local mask mandate. Several times in August, despite calls from Dr. Jeremy Adler, the county’s health officer, the three commissioners have said they didn’t want to step over elected school boards that were in position to make their own calls.
Loggins said Monday that TSC board members had received more than 5,000 emails on the mask question. He said he welcomed people to stay in contact. But he encouraged TSC parents and patrons to consider delivering messages higher up those who make quarantine rules and decide statewide guidelines.
“One thing that everybody's been able to learn from this discussion is that if you really want to lobby for some type of change, the rules come down to us. We don't make the rules,” Loggins said. “Although everybody wants to drill us about decisions … the state health department, the places that we get our information from, those are really the places that you ought to be directing a lot of the comments and emails.”
A group of TSC parents had been pressing the board to institute mask rules at least for the K-6 grades, given that they are 12 and youngers and aren’t eligible to get one of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Jesiek said that if the TSC board had doubted the science behind masks and the spread of COVID, the economic reality of quarantines – including parents having to take off work to stay at home with their kids – was something board members couldn’t ignore.
“The science should have been enough, really,” Jesiek said.
Matt Galvin, the father of a McCutcheon High School student, said he was weighing his family’s options, now that masks will be required. He said the science about masks “is all over the place.”
“The idea that you can’t admit that, I think, shows your dogmatism,” Galvin said. “So, where do you come down? You have to come down on the side of freedom. Down on the side of letting parents choose for their own children. … I don’t understand quarantining the healthy. In our history, we’ve never quarantined healthy people. It’s just so frustrating.”
TSC’s decision puts the three public districts in Tippecanoe County on essentially the same policy. Lafayette Catholic School System and Faith Christian School started the school year with mask-optional policies. Messages to administrators from the two private school systems were not immediately answered Monday.
Here were the COVID-19 case and quarantine figures, through Aug. 19, released Friday by the Tippecanoe County Health Department.
TSC: 42 cases, 388 in quarantine (estimated enrollment: 13,800)
LSC: 11 cases, 28 in quarantine (estimated enrollment: 8,000)
West Lafayette: 11 cases, 20 in quarantine (estimated enrollment: 2,400)
Lafayette Catholic Schools: 7 cases, 9 in quarantine
Faith Christian: Less than 5 cases, 10 in quarantine
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