Dozens of unmasked people filed into a Northwest Allen County school Monday, calling on district leaders to let their children and grandchildren do the same.
The showing at Perry Hill Elementary School represented a fraction of the 500 people united behind a movement dubbed Unmask NACS Students Now, parent Travis Striggle told the school board and district administration.
The audience, which briefly booed Superintendent Chris Himsel, seemed receptive to board President Kent Somers' idea of holding a public work session, likely in April, to address the district's coronavirus policies.
It's important that preventive measures don't produce worse outcomes than the disease itself, Somers said moments before his colleagues approved the work session.
Striggle, who was granted 16 minutes to speak during the public comment period, urged the district to survey parents about mitigation measures like it did last summer. He said another day of mask-wearing is too much.
“This is not a killer virus,” Striggle told The Journal Gazette before the meeting, stressing his fifth and third grade daughters are living normal lives outside school. They only encounter “ridiculous mandates” at school.
Allen County has reported 658 COVID-19 fatalities, and 12,622 Hoosiers are confirmed to have died from the disease, local and state health officials said Monday.
With the governor mandating masks for K-12 schools through June 30, the decision is out of the district's hands, Himsel said. The superintendent adhered to the policy, even when audience members urged him to remove his mask to better hear and understand him.
“A mandate is not a law,” one woman called out. “It's a suggestion.”
Attendees complained about skin irritations and discomfort masks cause, and they told stories of their children being disciplined or “masked shamed” for wearing the facial covering incorrectly.
Attendee Cindy Hess said there's no reason for children to wear masks, which get dirty with their snot and spit.
“I don't like seeing my grandchildren muffled,” Hess said.
Masks help shy children “melt into the background,” parent Ryan Houser said. She is concerned about greater mental health problems.
“Are we going to wait before we have a suicide?” Houser asked. “We cannot wait for that to happen.”
Mask-wearing is one of the five main mitigation strategies Northwest Allen County Schools implemented this academic year, Himsel said in a presentation before the public comment portion of the meeting. Other strategies include social distancing and increased frequency of hand-washing and cleaning.
The 7,800-student district has logged 414 coronavirus cases – including 307 among students, Himsel said. He noted fewer than 10 cases were because of in-school transmission.
Some students are vulnerable to the coronavirus, Himsel said, and there are parents who want more stringent policies implemented.
Board member Steve Bartkus, who was lax about wearing a mask during the meeting, earned applause when he asked Himsel why Gov. Eric Holcomb would lift the statewide mask mandate April 6 but keep requirements in place at schools.
“You'll need to ask the governor yourself,” Himsel said.
As the board prepared to adjourn after almost an hour of public comment, Striggle interrupted the proceedings, asking officials whether they would survey parents as he had requested.
“If you can't do the one thing that we ask, then we are going to get stronger and louder,” Striggle said, verbally sparring with Somers. “We're going to take the gloves off.”
The school board president cautioned Striggle about next steps.
“Travis, don't damage the good you've done tonight,” Somers said.