Masks optional: BCSC approves reopening plan

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. board members unanimously approved the COVID-19 reopening plan presented at Monday night’s meeting.

The plan, which was shared with the public last week and went into effect Tuesday, states that in most situations, masks are optional for students and staff and recommended for those at risk or unvaccinated.

BCSC Superintendent Jim Roberts noted that “at-risk factors” could refer to one’s own health or the health of someone else in their home.

Masks are still required on buses due to a federal mandate.

The plan also states that classroom spacing of 3 feet is recommended. Contact tracing will be conducted for individuals within 6 feet of an individual who tests positive.

Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 will report their results to the school nurse. Contact tracing will be implemented with a 10-day quarantine. A vaccinated individual with no symptoms will not be required to quarantine.

Roberts said that while the school corporation has received some feedback on the subject, it is still required to identify positive cases and all close contacts.

While parents are still asked to “be vigilant” and continue screening their children for symptoms, the school corporation is not recommending temperature checks upon entry to buildings, as was the protocol last school year, Roberts said.

BCSC will continue to monitor community spread and will adjust the plan if necessary, Roberts said. The current guidelines, he said, are “based upon where we are as a community.”

“We’re aware that there are increased cases happening across the country,” he said. “We’re aware that the Delta variant seems to be the majority of those cases and perhaps is more highly contagious. And we’ll continue to evaluate the spread of COVID-19 both in the state and in our community.”

While only five members of the public chose to speak about COVID-19-related issues during the time for comment, a large number of individuals attended the board meeting. A police officer was also at the meeting for security.

The range of pandemic-related issues discussed by speakers included vaccinations, quarantines and masks.

In his reopening plan update, Roberts said that the CDC is recommending masks for unvaccinated individuals, and the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending masks for all.

He noted that identifying unvaccinated individuals among students and staff is challenging, and requiring masks for only these individuals wouldn’t be enforceable. It would have to be an “honor system,” he said. The only students who are unvaccinated for sure are those from age 2 to 11 years old.

One speaker, Autumne Streeval, suggested requiring masks for at least this group. However, Roberts said that from the school corporation’s perspective, masks were an “all or none” decision.

“It seems odd, to me, that we would indicate that the spread of COVID-19 in this community is going to fall on the shoulders of our (students) ages 2-11,” said Roberts.

While COVID-19 is contracted by individuals and different groups and can present serious health issues for all ages sometimes, this younger population generally has less spread and severity, school officials said.

Stakeholders, such as their teachers and administrators, think that there is value in beginning the school year without masks, Roberts said. The Bartholomew County Health Department also gave its support for the initial plan presented on July 8, he said.

Three community members spoke in favor of masking, including pediatrician Dr. Tami Iorio and another local physician, Dr. Amy Hale.

“Dr. Roberts mentioned we don’t anticipate, and I would agree with him, that the spread of COVID in our community would be based on 2-11 year-olds,” Iorio said. “We’ve all heard that they tend to get sick less often, perhaps even transmitted less often. But the part that would concern me, as a pediatrician who has patients in elementary schools, would be the unvaccinated adults.”

There is a responsibility to look out for younger children who are not eligible for vaccination, she said.

Iorio also mentioned that BCSC might emphasize the waiving of quarantine for close contacts who are vaccinated and have no symptoms as an incentive to get the shot. Her comment was met with boos, leading board president Jill Shedd to request that the audience show respect for all speakers.

While COVID-19 vaccines are hardly mentioned on the reopening plan and not mandatory, the idea of requiring or even recommending vaccines for students remains a hot-button issue.

Roberts said that about 200 students were vaccinated during last year’s COVID-19 vaccine clinics in the two high schools.

Board member Todd Grimes asked if the school corporation might consider holding clinics again and possibly having some at Northside and Central Middle School as well. His query was met with some loud “no’s” from the audience.

In the spring, BCSC worked with local health officials to have these clinics available as an option that parents could choose, and at least one school, Taylorsville Elementary, hosted a clinic this summer.

“If there are opportunities, we’ll continue to work with local entities to make sure that opportunities are available for people who want to be vaccinated,” he said.

One speaker, Angela Grimes, said that her daughter had been “reprimanded” and “embarrassed” by a teacher for saying that she wasn’t planning to get the vaccine as she had already gotten COVID before. Her case was mild and “not worse than the flu.”

Grimes expressed discontent about the teacher overstepping her bounds by giving her daughter medical advice and showing a video from Vox (which she did not hold to necessarily be authoritative, as it is an “entertainment company”) about COVID being worse than the flu.

She added that there was a lack of response to questions she sent in about in-school vaccine clinics.

“Our children have been exposed to a lot of things in the past year and a half,” she said. “Fear, instability and shaming. So I ask the school board, what are you going to do in the future for preventing that from happening? And are you going to be held responsible if a student is harmed during school hours on your property with the COVID vaccines?”

Toward the meeting’s end, board members thanked the public for their input and also took the time to state some of their own thoughts on reopening.

Despite the unanimous vote, some expressed ongoing concerns or conflicted feelings about protocols.

Board member Kathy Dayhoff-Dwyer said that while she sympathizes with some of parents’ concerns, BCSC also has a responsibility to provide a “safe environment” for all children and staff.

She added that she has elementary-age grandchildren who are still wearing masks.

While some things are a parent’s choice, Dayhoff-Dwyer advised parents to keep their children home if they are sick or not feeling well, or at least have them wear a mask to school.

“I believe it is the parents’ rights as far as what they do with their kids, but they have to understand — and our community needs to understand — that if it’s right for them, if it’s right for their kids … as soon as vaccines become available, get vaccinated if that’s the right thing to do for you and your family,” she said.

However, she also noted that one of her own children will not be getting the vaccine because some concerns still remain. Her daughter, who is older, has done research and factored this into her choice.

Board member Nicole Wheeldon referenced the board’s ethics in her comments. She said the first item on their official code is “thinking always in terms of children first.” She said that this was the lens through which she cast her vote, as kids should be in school.

“However, I’m worried,” she said. “… The logic that the administration has presented, in terms of how we arrived at this decision, is very important to me. And I think the logic by which we will change it again, because I think it will change again, one direction or another, is also important to me. So I just urge us to get to that answer quickly.”

“Agility” will be important, because she doesn’t want to be slow in their decisions and put children at risk, she said.

“I think the most important quality that we can show at this point in time is agility, the ability to change direction quickly,” Roberts said earlier in the meeting. “… Hopefully we demonstrated that last year and need to be prepared to demonstrate that again. And so we start with a plan, we continue to review regularly.”

Every week the school cabinet examines data and the current situation, he said. BCSC is also in regular conversation with staff, local health officials and other relevant stakeholders.