Waves of mask debate roll over TSC, again. Commissioners not ready for mandate. Hospitals cancel procedures as COVID surges
TSC board says it will monitor situation in classrooms after dozens weigh in Wednesday night. Plus: Commissioners not ready to answer call for K-12 mandate. Strained hospitals put off elective surgery
Today’s edition is made possible, in part, by sponsor The Long Center for the Performing Arts. Check the bottom of today’s Based in Lafayette newsletter for details about the Robert Cray Band, heading to Lafayette Aug. 20.
After 64 speakers – shuttled in and out of the Tippecanoe School Corp. board’s meeting room Wednesday evening in waves from a line that stretched to Elston Road – and another 2 hours and 17 minutes of pros and cons on masks in the classrooms and the politics of freedom during a surging COVID-19 pandemic, board member Linda Day gauged the sentiment of a board that had voted 4-3 a week earlier to stick with a mask-optional policy to start the school year.
During a special meeting Aug. 4, the board’s rejection of recent CDC and Tippecanoe County Health Department recommendations for mask mandates in K-12 schools came with an open-ended agreement to keep an eye on COVID numbers and re-evaluate the reopening plan at the 11th largest district in Indiana.
Day said she’d thought about testing a mask requirement rule by calling for a fresh vote Wednesday. But she said that during school board work sessions earlier in the day – hours before 37 people spoke for a mask mandate and 27 spoke in favor of keeping the optional plan – board members didn’t show signs that they were ready to switch their votes after just one day of the new school year.
“So, I’m going to let it go, for now,” Day said. “I have no other choice.”
By sheer volume, Wednesday’s mask debate was the biggest this season for Greater Lafayette districts all grappling with the same issues. (Lafayette School Corp. and West Lafayette Community School Corp. opted for masks in indoor settings.)
By tone, it was pointed, but not out of hand, by any stretch.
School board president Patrick Hein had warned at the outset that clapping, booing, shouting or personal attacks would earn people an escort out. One speaker was asked to leave after leveling a few personal shots. Another was asked to stow a sign aimed at a particular board member. Beyond that, and maybe a shouting match in line before the TSC doors opened, the two sides made their points in the two-minute time limit offered and quietly stepped aside for the next in line.
(Compare it to what happened two days early, when the Lafayette School Corp. board shut down its meeting after some people in the audience – there to challenge how LSC had come up with a mandatory mask policy – refused to put on masks.)
Unlike previous sessions, where mask-optional crowds dominated, parents who had been petitioning the TSC school board for a mask requirement – at least in the K-6 grades, given that those younger than 12 aren’t eligible to get a COVID vaccine – made up more than half the crowd.
“We came prepared,” said Jennifer Dobbs-Oates, a parent who carried a petition for the K-6 requirement this summer, before CDC rules recommended even stricter guidelines.
Nearby, she was surrounded by red signs that read, “Masks for all until there are vaccines for all,” touting a hashtag #TSCParentsForMasks. They were in line with parents who wore blue shirts printed with: “Freedom (over) Fear.”
FROM LAST WEEK’S ARCHIVES: TSC bucks school trend, votes down mask requirements
Inside, Dobbs-Oates took stock in board members’ mentioning that they’d already received more than 1,000 emails on the question of mask requirements in the past week. She told board members that if they thought they were dealing with angry parents now, wait until COVID cases emerged and forced TSC to send large numbers of students home to quarantine.
Dr. Susan Cooper-Morphew, the parent of a TSC fourth-grader, pointed to situations like that already at Indiana schools in Scott County and Anderson.
“Why do we want to become the precautionary tale in Tippecanoe County?” Cooper-Morphew asked.
Amy Lawson told the board that she sent her kids to school last year in person, rather than the virtual option, because she trusted that the school had protocols in place to keep them as safe as possible. TSC classrooms had mandatory mask policies last year.
This year, Lawson said, “I can’t trust you to protect our kids.” She demanded a virtual option this year, too, if TSC wouldn’t follow the advice of the CDC, the county health officer or the district’s own physician.
Emma Livingston, a TSC parent who was among those unmasked asked to leave the LSC board meeting Monday night, told the board to let parents choose what was right for their kids and not to give in to the “pushback from the muzzle lovers.”
“At what point does the mandating stop?” Jessica Jordan, a TSC parent, asked, before praising a school board “with a backbone” to go with an optional mask policy.
Others standing against a mask mandate just wanted to know: Wasn’t this all decided a week ago? What were they doing there again Wednesday night, standing in line in the stuffy heat when they could have been home getting kids ready for the second day of school?
Hein reminded the audience that the 4-3 vote to keep the mask-optional rule came with a caveat that the policy could change if positivity rates and cases climbed in the district. As of the first day of school, TSC reported 16 COVID-19 cases in a district with more than 14,000 students. That compared to seven at the same time in 2020, according to a report offered Wednesday night.
Khala Hochstedler, Tippecanoe County Health Department administrator and a parent of two Klondike students not eligible for the shots yet, said she understood the flak the board was taking for making what she called hard decisions. She said she’d fielded threats in her role of running the county’s vaccine clinic and being out front on masking and other defenses against the coronavirus.
“Hateful calls, hateful emails, it doesn’t matter right now,” Hochstedler said. “We need to keep our kids safe.”
After it was clear that the board didn’t plan to vote on changes to the policy, Josh Loggins, a board member, held up a postcard he said had been left in his mailbox, with a stamp but no postmark, after he voted for the mask-optional plan.
The handwriting read:
“The mutated virus will run through the schools. We prayed last night that it hits your family particularly hard.”
“Does it have to come to this?” Loggins said after the meeting.
Loggins told the crowd that he stood by his vote. But he said he’d be among the board members watching the situation in schools and hoped parents and the community would understand if the board was forced to change course.
“It’s unfortunate that our board has been strapped in a position in which we’re supposed to make a medical mandate decision,” Loggins said. “It should not be our decision. But it is.”
The next TSC school board meeting is Sept. 8. The reopening plan, including a mask policy, will be on the agenda, again, Hein said.
HEALTH OFFICER’S PLEA, COUNTY COMMISSIONERS’ RELUCTANCE: Earlier Wednesday, Dr. Jeremy Adler, Tippecanoe County’s health officer, posted a note to the health department’s Facebook page, saying the department was “deeply concerned for the health and safety of students and staff in local school corporations that have decided to not adopt the recommendations for universal masking.”
Adler said the health department pursued a mask mandate for K-12 schools in the county – something the CDC recommends as the Delta variant of the virus pushes cases higher across the state and the country – but hadn’t been able to persuade Tippecanoe County commissioners to go along.
According to an Indiana law passed this spring, health officers need county commissioners’ approval to issue health orders stronger than those imposed by the state. Commissioners Tracy Brown and Tom Murtaugh pushed back on a similar request a week ago.
On Wednesday, Murtaugh said the county “still isn’t there on a mandate, yet.” No resolution for a mask mandate was on the agenda for the commissioners’ next meeting, at 10 a.m. Monday. Murtaugh said he didn’t expect to add it, even as he and other commissioners were being – in his words – “bombarded by emails from both sides of the issue.”
“For me, the key isn’t a mask mandate, it’s that we need to get folks vaccinated,” Murtaugh said. “Whether it’s the Delta variant or some variant that comes later, the only way to get this thing down to size is to get our vaccination rate up.”
As of the end of last week, roughly 47% of Tippecanoe County residents – including those younger than 12, who aren’t eligible – had been fully vaccinated, according to county records. Adler put the low threshold for herd immunity at 70%.
As of Wednesday, Tippecanoe County had a rolling seven-day average of 46 new COVID-19 cases a day. Adler said the majority of those were in unvaccinated people. Since mid-March, 93% of all new cases were in unvaccinated people, according to county figures.
In Greater Lafayette, two districts – Lafayette and West Lafayette – required masks in time for the start of classes this week. Tippecanoe School Corp. stuck with a mask-optional policy in a 4-3 board vote Aug. 11. Lafayette Catholic schools and Faith Christian schools also adopted mask-optional policies. (See more details about those private school policies below.)
Murtaugh said the TSC decision was made by an elected school board. He said he was uneasy about stepping in, as another elected board, and telling the schools what they had to do.
MEANWHILE, HOSPITALS, STRAINED BY COVID, PUSH BACK ELECTIVE PROCEDURES: In a joint announcement, Lafayette’s two hospitals – Franciscan Health and IU Health Arnett – said they were “concerned with our ability to continue to accept patients.”
Dr. Daniel Wickert, vice president of medical affairs at Franciscan Health Lafayette, and Dr. Jim Bien, chief medical officer at IU Health Arnett, issued this statement:
“We have made the difficult decision to limit the number of elective cases requiring an overnight stay each day. We continue to monitor our daily census closely and will respond accordingly to ensure that we have adequate resources to care for the community at large.
“We encourage everyone to get vaccinated. Pregnant women and other high-risk individuals, in particular, please get vaccinated.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, Franciscan had 24 patients testing positive for COVID-19, according to hospital figures. The hospital had 17 positive cases one week earlier. Of those 24, 12 patients were in intensive care unit and six were on ventilators.
Bien said IU Health Arnett started Wednesday with 19 COVID-positive cases, with four in intensive care.
“That said, we have frequently been in a status of transferring critically ill patients to other hospitals because our ICU has been full, due to a combination of high numbers and staffing shortages,” Bien said.
He said “the vast majority” – more than 95% – of the cases have been in unvaccinated patients. Bien said there’s growing concern about pregnant and breast feeding mothers. Pregnancy, he said, was a high-risk status for severe COVID-19 disease.
MASK POLICIES IN PRIVATE SCHOOLS: As school boards in Lafayette, Tippecanoe and West Lafayette school corporations deal with fallout from their COVID-19 masking rules as school starts – LSC and West side: Masks required; TSC: Masks optional – here’s how things will work in two private school systems in Lafayette.
Lafayette Catholic School System: Monday night, administrators for the system anchored by Central Catholic High School agreed to a mask-optional policy when classes open in-person next week. “Students and staff are strongly encouraged to wear masks anytime proper social distancing cannot be maintained,” the system wrote in an overview of a policy that also includes cafeteria rules, quarantine procedures and more. Matt Buche, director of advancement for Lafayette Catholic School System, said “fact-based analysis of real time information” may require adjustments to the reopening plan later in the school year. Buche said the schools also would post weekly updates on positive COVID-19 cases, as necessary. Buche said that, despite the varying masking policies in Greater Lafayette schools, “the collaboration that has taken place amongst school leaders is nothing like I have seen before and a testament to our local area schools commitment to educating children in this community. … Despite the different approaches amongst schools, I would encourage our community to celebrate the commitment from teachers, staff and administrators, who are committed to providing in-person education under extremely challenging conditions for all of us.”
Faith Christian School: In a letter sent to parents late last week, Faith Christian officials said they will encourage families and staff to contact their physicians “to determine whether face coverings or masks are necessary as a health preserving precaution for their family.” If families choose for their students to wear masks, school officials wrote, Faith Christian “will support that decision as a ‘mask-friendly’ school. Faith Christian’s reopening letter mentioned that the Tippecanoe County Health Department recommends COVID-19 vaccines for those eligible. The school left that decision to families to consult with “medical practitioners who have the full training and context of health implications to consider before they give advice.”
AT PURDUE, MITCH DANIELS GIVES MASK, VACCINATION PEP TALK: This week, Purdue President Mitch Daniels welcomed students – expected to be a record enrollment on the West Lafayette campus – with a video laying out the game plan for reopening fully in-person classes later this month. The rules at Purdue have been covered here quite a bit: Affirm that you’ve had a COVID-19 shot or submit to regular, possibly weekly, testing protocols, your choice. (At last count, from several weeks ago, 66% of students had self-reported that they’d been vaccinated.) Purdue also returned to a mandatory mask policy for indoor spaces on campus. As he did last year, Daniels said he had faith the Purdue students and staff could make that work – and keep the university open. “Now, we have to count on you, again,” Daniels said. “After months of near normalcy, we've all been tempted to believe that COVID-19 is behind us. But as much as we might wish it, we now know this problem is not over.” Daniels touted getting the vaccine and told those who decided not to get a shot to take testing seriously. “I assure you, we do,” Daniels said. “We have every reason to expect a great year, but that depends on how we all handle ourselves, and whether we show the same spirit of community that got us through 2020.”
WHILE WE’RE TALKING MASKS, PUBLIC HEARINGS, ETC. …: Looking at this scene in Franklin, Tennessee, the question is: How did doctors and nurses wind up the enemies during a global pandemic. Wow. And you thought the shutdown of the Lafayette School Corp. board meeting over unmasked people in the audience was something.
Thanks to sponsor Long Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Lafayette for help with today’s edition. About that Robert Cray Band show, click the graphic below for tickets and more.
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