Mask mandate: County leaving it up to schools

By Mitchell Banks | The Tribune

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County officials have ultimately decided local school corporations should decide on their own to enforce a mask mandate, rather than the county.

The Jackson County Health Department recently sent the commissioners a letter penned by Dr. Christopher Bunce, Jackson County health officer, saying the Jackson County Board of Health unanimously voted to recommend a countywide mask requirement for schools.

A request was made in the letter that the recommendation “be adopted as a county requirement until pandemic conditions make it unnecessary.”

Included in the letter were seven points as to why a mask requirement should be required:

High rates of COVID-19 in the county and state

Infection spread and contact tracing being reduced by masking within schools

The COVID-19 delta variant being more infectious than previous variants

The ineffectiveness of mask-optional policies

Low vaccination rates in the county

Misinformation that there are health consequences to wearing a mask

The greatest defenses against COVID-19 being immunization and masking

Crothersville Community School Corp. recently started requiring masks for all adults and students entering school buildings, and Medora Community School Corp.’s policy states masks are highly recommended at school for all students and staff.

“There is no mask mandate at this time,” Medora Superintendent Roger Bane said.

Brownstown Central Community School Corp. and Seymour Community School Corp. have not voted on a mask mandate, Commissioner Drew Markel said during the meeting.

Masks are required for any students riding the bus for all school corporations in the county.

The commissioners agreed to take no action and to tell Bunce to talk with school superintendents himself about mask mandates in a unanimous 3-0 vote.

Commissioner Matt Reedy said he wanted to send local school corporations a copy of Bunce’s letter and a letter from the commissioners stating that “school boards are to make this call first” and that commissioners voted in April that masks are suggested but not mandated in the county.

“I believe it is time to move it back to the school,” Reedy said.

Markel said he didn’t believe in suggesting schools do anything and that they can make their own decision on a masking requirement.

“I don’t think it’s the role of the county commissioners in any manner to put anything on the schools to say we suggest or not suggest (a masking requirement) because they have the power to make that decision on their own,” he said.

Letters would not be sent out to local school corporations as a part of the commissioners’ vote.

Markel said he had been contacted by one local high school principal who has no interest in mandating masks, and Seymour Community School Corp. Superintendent Brandon Harpe was unaware of Bunce’s letter or the vote from the commissioners.

District 69 State Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, attended the meeting to speak on the issue.

He said Bunce was making statements without any proof or data in the letter and asked that he back up what he says with “facts, credible data and research” if his letter was to be sent to schools.

“I would strongly recommend and ask as a constituent of Jackson County that we not take away the control from superintendents. I would further ask that if you do send a letter with that recommendation, I would get with Dr. Bunce and ask him to back up his accusations with data other than opinion,” Lucas said.

The website for Schneck Medical Center’s infectious disease office says, “Dr. Christopher Bunce is a fellowship trained infectious disease specialist with more than 25 years of experience in clinical practice.”

A couple of members of the public also spoke at the meeting about the potential for a countywide mask mandate for schools.

Mary Ann Spray asked if communication between local superintendents and Bunce came to a standstill, so the health officer came to the commissioners for them to make a decision as a response.

Markel said he didn’t believe that was what was going on.

“I would say that there is one school corporation certainly, if not two, that do not want to take a vote on implementing a mask mandate on their own, which in turn would lose them students, which would potentially lose them funding,” he said.

One local resident alleged that oxygen levels in the room dropped after he did a demonstration with an indoor air quality monitor with and without a face mask on. He said he wanted Bunce to show data to prove that masks work.

Tyler Henkle said it is up to school boards and superintendents to make their own decisions on masking, and if voters aren’t pleased with what decision they make, elected members can be voted out.

Jackson County Councilman Dave Hall said the health department’s focus is health, and they do not know what goes on inside the county schools. He said there is “a cost” to masks.

On the bullet point talking about how there is misinformation spread about there being no health consequences to wearing a mask, Bunce’s letter said there are “no adverse health consequences to wearing a mask”, children don’t suffer “physically or psychologically from masking,” and learning is not hindered.

Regarding that statement, Markel called it “crap” and said in a year that he worked as a school administrator during the pandemic, he saw students get shamed for not having a mask or not wearing one correctly.

“Dr. Bunce, I’m sorry, but (the health department) does not know how a school runs, they do not know how a school works,” he said. “Just to say it’s misinformation and a blatant lie, it’s not. It is an issue. It is psychologically draining to those kids that come in there every day.”