Indiana mandates masks at school for most students and teachers

STEM Launch School kindergarten teacher Carrie Brown cleans out her students’ cubbies in her classroom May 15, 2020.
Indiana will require students in third grade and older, teachers, and school staff to wear masks when school buildings reopen.  (Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Indiana will require all students in third grade and above, teachers, and school staff to wear masks when they return to school buildings this fall, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced Wednesday.

The mandate is a significant move from Holcomb, who has steadfastly deferred decisions about reopening to school leaders — one that signals the slowing momentum of a state once barreling forward with ambitious plans to reopen all schools in person. But it’s unlikely to ease all the fears educators have raised as school start dates loom.

The requirement, which previous political rhetoric made seem improbable, is part of a larger statewide mandate brought on by a rising number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Last week, more than 7% of people in Indiana were testing positive for the coronavirus, according to state data, up from a low of 4% last month. Starting Monday, the state will require people ages 8 and older to wear masks while in public indoor spaces.

“Our kids should not be getting mixed messages during the day,” Holcomb said during his weekly press conference. “When they leave school grounds, they should see that everyone is doing what they are doing.”

There is some flexibility built into the mandate, with exceptions that will allow schools to have students take off their masks if classrooms can be configured so everyone is at least 3 feet apart, during outdoor recess, if deemed necessary for instructional purposes, or for some special education students. (The executive order later said classrooms must be configured so everyone is 6 feet apart.)

But the requirement will force some districts to change their plans weeks before they were scheduled to start, and put more pressure on schools to have a stockpile of reusable and disposable face coverings.

Jay County Schools was among the districts planning to stop short of mandating masks, pointing to public disinterest and the low number of cases in the rural area along the Ohio border. After Holcomb’s announcement, Superintendent Jeremy Gulley said in a Facebook post to parents that the school board would have to meet to discuss its implications for the district’s reopening plan. 

A previous district survey found 38% of families said their children wouldn’t return to school in the fall if masks were required.

“We are aware that this mandate may affect family decisions about demand for the virtual option,” Gulley said in the post Wednesday. “We need time to review the governor’s order and to consider any staffing and program changes necessary to meet demand.”

Gulley declined an interview with Chalkbeat Wednesday.

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Other districts, including those in Marion County, were already planning to open with strict mask requirements. Indianapolis Public Schools will require all students to wear face coverings if they choose to attend classes in person, according to the district’s reopening plan.

IPS joined a growing number of districts in Indiana and elsewhere that have recently pushed back the start of school. Local superintendents pointed to limited state guidance and spiking cases. At least three districts in highly-affected areas — Washington Township, South Bend, and Gary — are starting school entirely online.

Holcomb said Wednesday that he supports those local decisions, reiterating that he would not set a statewide school start date and that he’s not ordering schools to open in person. But Holcomb appealed to districts, asking them to “please” consider opening buildings and providing transportation. 

“I want school districts to be very mindful of what that decision means holistically for the family,” he said.

Wednesday’s announcement comes more than a week after Holcomb met with the Indiana State Teachers Association, which called on the governor to require masks for grades six and above. The union based its argument in large part on concern for teachers’ health and safety as schools reopen. 

Holcomb didn’t address other demands from the state’s largest teachers union, including eliminating standardized testing and providing clarity around when schools should close for COVID-19 spikes. State leaders outlined Wednesday more specific guidelines for how schools should handle positive cases through contact tracing and quarantining, but they have not set thresholds for when an entire school should be closed.

The state has purchased 3 million reusable masks using federal coronavirus relief money. Holcomb said they will be distributed to 472 schools along with disposable masks and hand sanitizer.

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