Last Thursday, the Jennings County School Board held their meeting in the cafeteria of Jennings County High School with the main agenda item being the Panther Prepare and Care Plan. After votes were cast, the board voted 5-2 in favor of keeping masks in the schools.
During summer meetings, JCSC superintendent Teresa Brown presented the first version of the plan, letting kids attend school without masks being worn, with the exception of masks being worn to and from school on buses. After a spike in cases at the end of August that left nearly 25% of students attending classes from home, the plan was revised to bring back masks for students and staff until further notice and would be revisited in the coming months.
Tensions began to rise roughly three weeks ago, when a large crowd of concerned citizens and parents took to JCSC’s Central Office, demanding the board to leave the choice to the parents, and to revote on the issue. The revote was set to take place at the next board meeting on November 11.
A little after 7:00 p.m. last Thursday, members of the school board along with department heads from Jennings County Schools took their seats in front of the crowd estimated over 50 people. After sitting down, school board president Pat Sullivan reminded the crowd that masks were required while in the high school. Many were quick to speak up regarding the lack of masks that were being worn at the girl’s basketball game taking place in the gym at the same time. Sullivan noted that the IHSAA (Indiana High School Athletics Association) follows different rules than the rules that school corporations are directed to follow. Arguments ensued, and those that refused to wear masks were escorted outside by members of the North Vernon Police Department.
The meeting finally began after that, with the vote being the last item on the agenda. When the item was brought up, ten members of the community had signed up to speak on the issue. While many came to speak out against the mask mandate in the schools, almost the same amount came to the podium to speak for the mask mandate. It seemed that all the citizens that spoke against the masks were silenced, however, by two members that spoke for masks. Dr. Jennifer Stanley and Dr. Monish Jain, both of Acension St. Vincent Jennings, spoke to the board about the scientific based findings of masks, including the lower number of kids coming into the office sick since the mask mandate was put into place, according to Stanley. One citizen that decided to speak was rather harsh to the board however, telling them that if they continued to vote to keep the mask mandate, that the community would “make their life a living you know what.”
Others speaking for masks were local optometrist Kirk Hearne and JCMS teacher Liz McGuire. Speaking against were Lianna McKinney, Alice Perkins, chiropractors Trevor Miller and Adam Davis, Missy Millspaugh Maschino, and Andrew Boyd.
Board member Earl Taggert stood before the vote was taken to let the members of the community know his stance, which was believing that parents should be able to make the choice on masks, before sitting down. When Pat Sullivan asked for those in favor to raise their hands, five hands shot up. Those voting for were Sullivan, Amy Pettit, Tony Daeger, Travis Shepherd, and Susan Wahlman. Taggert and Chelsea Morrison, the two members of the board that voted against the masks in August, were the only two that voted against this time.
While masks will stay in effect at all JCSC schools for the time being, the wording of the policy has changed to allow for no masks in schools if the community levels of Covid get better. Per a statement from Superintendent Brown, “At this time, the JCSC board has determined that masking will follow the community spread levels in Jennings County, which are released each Wednesday by the IDOH (Indiana Department of Health). When the IDOH dashboard indicates that the Jennings County community spread is at the orange or red levels, masks will be required in the JCSC schools. Our goal is to keep our students in school learning in person and reduce the students identified as close contacts. When the Jennings County community spread reaches the yellow or blue levels according to the IDOH dashboard, indicating that community spread is relatively low, masks will not be required indoors in our schools.”
Yesterday when the IDOH dashboard was updated, the level for Jennings County was still in the orange level, with a 13.33% positivity rate over the past 7 days. In order for the level to drop to yellow, the 7 day positivity rate must be below 10%. Last week, the positivity rate was 11.9%, and with the rate unfortunately going in the wrong direction, it is unknown when masks will become optional for students of Jennings County Schools.