The Journal Gazette
Thursday, April 22, 2021 1:00 am

NACS panel: Masks safe for kids

Health experts, school leaders espouse virus protocols

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

Keeping schools open is best for kids, and masks make that happen, a panel of health experts told the Northwest Allen County Schools board Wednesday.

Dr. Matthew Sutter, the Allen County health commissioner, said schools are an ideal place to spread COVID-19, which makes adherence to mitigation strategies incredibly important.

“Masks are inexpensive, they're generally well tolerated, and it's worked,” Sutter said.

NACS, however, is getting pushback from parents about complying with the governor's mask mandate for K-12 schools. Wednesday's work session at Carroll High School followed two regular meetings that included several people calling for “mask choice.”

Parents have also spoken in favor of masks.

The work session was an opportunity for the five-member board to review district policies and get input from health professionals, including a pediatrician, clinical psychologist and infectious disease expert. The district's legal counsel also participated.

No public comment was allowed, but people – both masked and unmasked – filled socially distanced chairs in the cafeteria to listen to the discussion, which lasted more than two hours.

Superintendent Chris Himsel described the steps taken to reopen schools. He said the district serves students and employs staff who have underlying conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.

NACS didn't want any student or employee to become another COVID-19 statistic, Himsel said. If any did, he continued, leaders wanted to know they did everything possible to prevent transmission from occurring in schools.

“Our actions have carried the additional burden of making sure that we did enough,” Himsel said.

The district has adjusted protocols – including the duration of quarantines and the definition of a close contact – when guidance changed, Himsel added.

Board members, particularly President Kent Somers and Steve Bartkus, pressed panelists about potential negative effects – both mentally and physically – of forcing students to wear masks for hours a day.

Evidence does not show masks cause mental health declines, panelists said.

Rather, they said, students are affected by being taken away from their social circles, such as sports and school. Parents' anxieties and home situations are other contributing factors, they said.

“I think we might be a little cavalier in thinking masks are safe,” Somers said, questioning whether there are health trade-offs to wearing masks. “Isn't there some real risks to the kids?”

No, panelists said. Masks can be safely worn.

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