Schools

South ends mask mandate after parents express concern

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NEW MARKET — Roughly 100 parents filled the Southmont High School Auditorium on Monday to express concern about children being required to wear masks throughout the day at each Southmont school.

The meeting, which was moved from the LGI Room to the auditorium due to parents and spectators not willing to comply with the mask mandate, lasted over an hour and a half before culminating with a decision by the Southmont School Board to make masks optional during the school day at all Southmont schools, beginning Friday.

In December, the board voted 4-3 to require masks when students returned to school from Christmas break Jan. 3. Longtime board member Julie Hess said the 4-3 vote to require masks was the first 4-3 vote the board has had in the last nine years — relaying to the crowd how difficult the decisions the board has had to make regarding the COVID-19 pandemic have been.

“I want to explain to you why we as a board have stuck together and been respectful of each other,” Hess said. “It is the first and only 4-3 vote we’ve had in nine years. If that doesn’t explain how divisive this is, I’m very upset, but I’ve also defended every single person on this board this past month. I’ve had multiple people call and ask and not understand the reasons why, and I’m here to explain to you the governor said ‘if everyone is masked, we don’t have to quarantine.’

“We did what we did,” Hess continued. “Many of you out here know that your kids get fed every day and if they’re home on a quarantine, that is not always an option for all of our children. We have lots of kids that aren’t getting on and doing their work when their quarantined. These are the reasons we did what we did. We didn’t put masks on kids because we want masks on kids, we put the masks on kids so we knew that kids were at school, and least making eye contact with an adult each day to make sure they’re OK, and to make sure they’re getting a meal.”

After 30 minutes of parent testimony and comments from several board members, the board took a vote to end the mask mandate at the end of the school day Friday. The motion passed 6-1.

With the concern that Montgomery County would see a spike in COVID-19 cases following holiday gatherings and the CDC’s guidance regarding a 10-day quarantine for unvaccinated students in a school not requiring masks, the boards’ 4-3 vote in December showed their vested interest in keeping as many students in the classroom as possible. The Indiana Department of Health’s guidelines states that if universal masking is required in a school, asymptomatic individuals do not have to quarantine after an exposure in the classroom, regardless of vaccination status.

The spike in cases has been seen in Montgomery County, with 416 new cases reported since Jan. 1. However, a change in quarantine requirements from the CDC on Dec. 27, was the driving force in the boards’ decision to reverse the mask mandate decision.

“You can see how difficult these decisions are for us to make,” said Daryl Hutson, who assumed the role as board president at Monday’s meeting. “I don’t like kids being masked any more than anyone else. We took this as a preemptive strike when we thought back in December and it did, this Omicron variant has spiked, but in between the time we made this decision to fully mask the children in order to slow the quarantine and absentee rate in our schools, the CDC changed the guidelines on us since then.”

Under the new guidance, individuals that are a close contact of a positive individual are required to quarantine for five days instead of 10 if they are unvaccinated and if they are fully vaccinated, including a booster, they are not required to quarantine. And if an individual tests positive for COVID-19, they are required to isolate for five days, and return to normal activities on day six if symptoms are resolved, but must mask from days 6-10. Southmont students and staff will now fall under this guidance starting Monday.

Southmont Schools also will return to masks on a building by building basis if a school reaches a 3% threshold of positive cases within that schools’ student body — a motion that was passed earlier in the 2021-22 school year.

When the board opened the meeting for public comment, there was no shortage of parents ready to voice their opinion on the mask policy.

“Why are we masking the least vulnerable part of the population,” Matt Priebe asked. “Everywhere else it’s a choice. When you look at the lack of freedom of choice and the results of the parent poll, we were all a part of some weeks ago, it becomes very clear to me that you’re completely defying the will of the very people you polled. You asked, we answered, and you revered course on what we answered. I don’t understand that.”

While Priebe took time to thank the board for the tough decisions they’ve had to make in the last two years, others were quick to question the board and their ability to put the students’ best interests first.

“My child’s health is my job as a parent,” Alicia Zachary said. “You can’t assure me of anything. You can’t assure me that my child won’t get sick at any time. Your job as we elected as parents is to assure that she has a good education and that’s what we elected you for. She came home so excited to learn about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, only to switch gears in a split second to discuss how separated she was from her friends that she could no longer eat with at school. We are creating cliques amongst our kids. Mask-wearers, non-compliant, vaxxed and non-vaxxed, radicals and sheep. What happened to this being about our children’s education? You’re not suppose to teach our children to be bullies. I’m just waiting for segregated water fountains and bathrooms. We are being bullied and made to do things against our basic constitutional rights. Our children need interaction, socialization and a good education and not to be picked on about their jab status and what kind of mask they’re wearing and a daily conversation around the virus and vaccine.”

Sondra Sixberry urged the board to rally around the parents and for the parents to do the same in return.

“The truth is, that fear drives way too many emotions,” Sixberry said. “Data is often hidden from us, manipulated, misunderstood, and totally misrepresented as science. Parents, teachers and administration should be held liable for our children’s education and in that order. Parents you are in the driver’s seat. The truth is the Southmont School Board was elected by and should represent southern Montgomery County. Board members I’m sure you never thought you’d be in a heated discussion about masking children, at the same time as parents I thought we never dreamed about having standing up for the rights of our children. But here we find ourselves, two years at slowing the spread and we say ‘we are all in this together,’ but are we? It’s my wholeheartedly belief that when we the parents, teachers, admin, school board stand up for what we believe in, we have then provided our kids with the very best education. If the school board has the courage to get behind ‘we the parents,’ then ‘we the parents,’ need to get behind the school board.”

While most parents in attendance were against the mask mandate, a select few were in favor of keeping the mandate in order to keep as many students in the classroom as possible.

“I think we can all agree that we love our children, and we want them to be in school in-person,” said Beth Daniel Lindsay, who has two students at New Market Elementary. “In order to keep them in school in-person, I urge you to maintain the current policy of universally masking in school.”

Board member Eric Mason pointed to the crowd of people that remained unmasked and said as a parent that he would side with them, but was among the four board members to vote for masks in December.

“I appreciate all the comments, if I was sitting out in the crowd, I’d be in that section,” Eric Mason said as he pointed to more than 50 unmasked individuals. “With that being said I voted to mask children, because of quarantining. We had almost 90 kids that weren’t in school, and kids are not getting educated at home behind a computer. Kids have to be in school to get proper education.”

Mason voted on Monday to end the mandate.

With the increase of numbers countywide, there is no guarantee that Southmont Schools won’t end up returning to masks under their current 3% rule.

But one thing remains certain surrounding COVID-19 and education.

The situation remains fluid, but Southmont administrators and board members are doing everything it takes to keep students in the classroom.

“Data is changing all the time,” said Brad Monts, new board vice president. “We don’t want any of our students to be infected. Do we believe masks are the answer, we do not believe they are the answer. But we do believe it helps keep our students in the classroom, where they best do their learning. That was the intent of the motion last month.

“Our positive cases are still under 1% at all buildings and that is using a rolling average. I hate to say this, but I’m afraid to see that we get to 3% and I think that will happen by the end of the month. I hope to be proven wrong. And I think that’s the key, is how do we get through this month given the information.”

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  • hoosier1998

    Bravo South Montgomery Parents!! You've sacrificed the health and safety of your children so you can be ideologically pure. No one from the community will associate you with Fauci or Liberals.

    Thursday, January 13 Report this