Penn-Harris-Madison, the last district in St. Joseph County to require masks

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MISHAWAKA – Students in the Penn-Harris-Madison District are waking up to a new mask policy on Tuesday morning.

At a marathon meeting Monday night, MPS school board members voted 5-2 to update the district’s back-to-learning plan requiring universal interior masking for all students based on current level of community spread of COVID-19 in St. Joseph County.

In their decision, board members highlighted both changes in measures from the Indiana State Department of Health as well as district data that shows 19 staff and students have reported positive cases of COVID-19 in three days last week and 125 have been identified as close contacts.

“I think we can all agree that in-person school students are better than virtual learning,” said school board president Chris Riley. “I hesitate to make any decision that accelerates the possibility that we will again be forced to have our students in virtual learning.”

Read it:MPS email sent to staff and families after Monday night’s vote

Factors that also prompted board members to make their decision included legal advice on responsibility for inter-school transmission from District Attorney Jeff Johnson and the possibility of reducing the distance used for contact tracing among people. wearing masks.

ISDH guidelines for the fall semester 2021 state that while all students in a classroom are masked and facing forward, only those within three feet of a person testing positive for coronavirus for 15 minutes or more should be identified as close contact from anyone within six feet for the same period in an unmasked setting.

The MPS decision follows a growing list of maskless districts, such as Mishawaka and Plymouth, which are now issuing warrants.

“The importance of a mask for the continuity of learning as we go through this time makes it likely, greatly increases the likelihood that students can be safely in-person in class,” said Superintendent Jerry Thacker.

25 cases: Mishawaka issues mask warrant after more than two dozen cases in four school days

The chairman of the board, along with members Larry Beehler, Jaye Galloway, Clare Roach and Jamie Woods voted in favor of mandatory masking.

The policy begins Tuesday, just hours after the Monday board meeting ends. Thacker said teachers and staff will have masks on hand Tuesday for students who need them.

Masking to stay in class

On August 9, the MPS school board approved a back-to-learning plan that included optional masking for students of all ages. Galloway and Roach voted against the plan noting the consensus of federal, state and local guidelines recommending masks among students and staff at all levels, regardless of immunization status.

Five doctors spoke at the August 9 meeting, urging board members to consider universal masking like the South Bend Community School Corp. it suffices to mandate the face coverings. A board member questioned the effectiveness of masks, saying “everyone knows children wearing masks don’t stop the virus.”

Earlier: The MPS will not impose the face covering at the start of the school year

Parents and public health officials quickly responded with organized rallies and public letters asking the school board to reconsider mask requirements, with some parents choosing to remove their students from school after the district’s first day. , last Wednesday, until the council implemented stricter masking.

While local public health officials are still studying the effects of the delta variant on school transmission, Indiana has recorded its highest number of cases among college students. As of August 16, 796 students were registered as positive cases – most of the cases reported in a single day at any time during the pandemic.

Students, parents and community members gather outside the Penn-Harris-Madison Education Service Center on Monday, August 23, 2021 to support optional mask policies.  The PHM school board voted later that night in favor of universal indoor masking for all students effective the next day.

At least three districts in Indiana have already switched to some form of distance learning as positive cases and quarantines increase in their communities.

In the community of Michiana, St. Joseph County currently falls under the highest categories of community spread as designated by the county health department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

MPS administrators say they are taking CDC recommendations into account, but are basing their decisions on community spread levels from the Indiana Department of Health, which places St. Joseph County in “yellow” by compared to the previous “blue” designation assigned to the county two weeks ago.

No mask required in Indiana: Local schools must make their own decisions

And, that level could change soon. Riley said St. Joseph County deputy health director Dr Mark Fox told district leaders the county would most likely switch to orange, one step away from the highest red designation of state, when Indiana health officials update the state’s public dashboard on Wednesday.

School board members approved a package of mask-related actions on Monday evening based on these state measures. In the state’s “blue” or lower category, masking will be optional for staff and students but recommended for those who are not vaccinated. At “yellow”, “orange” and “red”, universal interior masking will be required for all grade levels.

Masks will continue to be mandatory on school buses, as per the federal requirement, until at least January 18, 2022.

Parents, doctors react

More than 200 people gathered outside the MPS Education Service Center an hour before the meeting to support maintaining the optional district mask position.

Inside, community members filled the boardroom and an overflow space just outside the boardroom to capacity, with others still choosing to wait outside. their turn to speak.

The chairman of the board said at least 76 people have registered to speak at the meeting which lasted more than five hours.

Comments at times became strained with Riley moderating the conversation, repeatedly asking members of the audience to “breathe.”

Several students and parents spoke of the difficulties caused by masks, including fear of being reprimanded for not wearing them correctly and difficulty communicating with friends and teachers in a whisper.

Several parents highlighted the council’s own participation on Monday night by wearing masks. Only a council member and senior district leaders seated at the council table wore a mask. A parent challenged the council and district leaders to join the students in wearing the face coverings.

“What better way to support them than to promise tonight that tomorrow morning you’re going to put on your mask too, and you’re going to wear it for seven hours, straight,” said Joy Clapsaddle, PHM parent. “I asked you to go public and say ‘We are not going to ask you to do something that we will not be right next to you and that we will not do with you.’ ‘

“The most effective strategy”: Beacon Health Executives Urge MPS To Adopt CDC Guidelines

Others criticized the board for being “intimidated by the growing number of local health professionals speaking out publicly for mask warrants and several comments echoed board member Jim Garrett who on Monday evening doubled down on his past public statements questioning the effectiveness of the masks.

“It’s been 18 months and we need to be able to make your own choices based on the information and research we have today,” MPS parent Tara Spivey said addressing the board. “You are now all complicit in forcing children to submit. This should never happen in the United States. You have been bullied and you are proving that the health and safety of MPS students is not inclusive for everyone. “

At least 19 doctors spoke out at the meeting, all in favor of universal masking. They said their intention, in running an advertisement in last Thursday’s edition of the Tribune with more than 260 signatures from medical professionals, was not to “intimidate” the board but to present the made as a medical community.

“This delta variant is different. It affects children. The transmissibility is twice as high as last year and we need the help of our community.” said Dr Mohamed Jahangir, an adult hospitalist at Elkhart General Hospital. “These masks are not 100%, but these masks will reduce the rate of transmission. These masks will reduce the rate of infections in adults, so I would like to ask the community to come together and make this a collective effort. to try to ease the burden of this disease.

Email Carley Lanich, South Bend Tribune education reporter, at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @carleylanich.



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