The Vigo County School Board voted 7-0 to move grades 7-12 to universal masking indoors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision takes effect immediately.

As a result, students in grades 7-12 must mask during class. Up until now, those students could choose to remove their masks during forward-facing instruction.

Grades Pre-K through 6 in Vigo County have had universal masking inside schools since the start of the academic year.

Just prior to the vote, board member Amy Lore said, "I believe all school boards across Indiana are in an impossible situation. Certainly we are."

On one hand, she said, state government is providing a loosely defined allowance for local discretion on COVID policies.

On the other hand, "We have mandatory quarantine policies and a new executive order, also from state government, that leave us with the 'choice' between total masking and essentially returning to e-learning when most of our students are relegated to quarantine."

She added, "We are trying to balance two pandemics — one of respiratory health and the other of mental health."

Lore went on to say she is not a fan of universal masking.

"But here we sit — between a quarantine order and an executive order."

About 20 people spoke during a public comment period, most supportive of universal masking. Several in the audience quietly held up green cards when people spoke in support of universal masking and red cards for those expressing opposition to it.

Those attending the meeting had to wear a mask, and extra security again was present.

Among those speaking in support was Emma Crossen, who has a child in kindergarten. "For me, this is common sense," she said. "I hope it isn't a hard decision for you." She also told board members , "You have a lot of support in the community."

Denise Sobieski, a retired science teacher, said, "Delta variant is rampant in our community. We need to follow the science."

Former school board member Dave Lotter commended the board for giving the public an opportunity to comment on all sides of the issue.

"You have a tough job," Lotter said. He urged board members to continue using science and "solid evidence" in their decision-making.

Ashley Fentz spoke against universal masking. She has five children in school.

"Nothing good can come from forcing everyone to do the same thing," she said. "I feel you should be given a choice."

She's seen the effects of mask wearing on her own kids and "it breaks my heart," she said. Some don't know what their friends look like; they can't hug friends or give them a high five. Her son doesn't want to go to pre-school.

What is good for some is not good for all, she said.

"Yes, health and safety is important. I'm not saying you should completely disregard that," Fentz said. "We all care about these kids and we all love these kids and we want them to stay in school. And we just want the best possible outcome for everyone."

Keith Birkey told the board, "I think we've lost focus of true and good common sense." It should be up to parents whether kids mask, he said. "We still live in the United States of America, and we still are free to do as we choose."

The recommendation presented by Superintendent Rob Haworth was based on guidance from the district's COVID-19 Advisory Group, which is made up of healthcare professionals and community members.

Major considerations were the rising numbers of cases and hospitalizations in Vigo County and the district’s efforts to keep more students in school this year.

The advisory group also took into account the Gov. Eric Holcomb's Executive Order 21-24, which was issued Sept. 1.

By making this change, the district could follow the governor’s executive order, which allows for the district to avoid quarantines in the classroom when all are masked.

According to Haworth, universal masking will remain in effect until the governor's executive order expires or until the COVID 19 advisory group recommends a change — in either case, the board would be asked to vote on the change.

In meeting with reporters, Haworth said his charge "is to try to keep school in session" and avoid switching to virtual learning. Students learn more effectively when they are in school learning from a teacher, he said.

After the meeting, parent Matthew Harvey, who is retired from the U.S. Army, said he was not allowed to attend the meeting because he was not masked. He believes his First Amendment rights were violated, he said.

"I wasn't able to go in there and express my ideas," he said. "I don't wear a mask" due to religious beliefs. Not being able to comment at the meeting goes against his civil liberties, he said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.

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