The Southwest Allen County Schools board does not have the authority to create less stringent quarantine rules than the state, the county's highest public health official said Wednesday.
Dr. Matthew Sutter, the Allen County health commissioner, was reacting to the five-member board's decision Tuesday to adjust quarantine rules while maintaining a mask-recommended policy. In a 4-1 vote, the board agreed close contacts won't have to quarantine if both the exposed person and infected person were wearing masks during the exposure.
“Since the quarantine rules are set at the state level, neither the local school boards nor local health departments have the authority to create less stringent rules than the state,” Sutter said in a statement. “We are actively engaged in discussions on this issue and will continue to work toward consistency in following state requirements.”
In a classroom setting, close contacts don't need to quarantine only if everyone in the classroom is fully masked and is properly wearing the face covering at all times, said Megan Wade-Taxter, Indiana Department of Health spokeswoman.
Quarantine would be required for close contacts within 6 feet of a positive case if anyone is unmasked, she said.
“Absent conditions in which everyone is fully masked in a classroom as described, close contacts must be quarantined without exception,” Wade-Taxter said by email. “These are part of the control measures in place for communicable diseases.”
Gov. Eric Holcomb loosened the quarantine rules last week. The new approach provides an incentive to districts struggling with the mask question while also not being a mandate.
Fort Wayne Community Schools and Northwest Allen County Schools required masks when the change was announced.
The East Allen County Schools and SACS superintendents recommended a return to masks at meetings Tuesday, but both boards denied the request.
“I am disappointed by our local school boards' decisions to not employ universal masking in schools,” said Sutter, the county health commissioner. “Universal masking, in addition to vaccination, remains an important tool to slow the spread of COVID-19 and help keep kids in school.”
The proposal at EACS failed by a 4-3 vote. Jenny Blackburn, Paulette Nellems and Steve Screeton supported the mandate while Todd Buckmaster, Gayle Etzler, Tim Hines and Ron Turpin opposed it.
Park Ginder, the SACS superintendent, shared COVID-19 case and quarantine numbers from the previous two weeks to illustrate how a few dozen diagnoses can lead to hundreds of quarantines when mask-wearing is optional.
“It's my job to keep kids in school. Period,” Ginder told the more than 100 people in the audience Tuesday. “We put masks on, the quarantine goes away, I got my kids back.”
The SACS board never acted on Ginder's recommendation. Member Jennifer Couch opposed the decision to stay mask-optional with altered quarantine rules.
Stacey Fleming, SACS spokeswoman, provided a statement Wednesday about the vote. “At this time, the board's recommendation is being reviewed by legal counsel to determine if it meets the state's requirements,” the district said. “Until we receive further guidance, SACS will continue to follow the current policies and procedures communicated in the board-approved Return to the Classroom Plan. Any changes to the current plan will be communicated to our families as soon as possible.”
In nearby Kosciusko County, Warsaw Community Schools announced Wednesday it will require masks for all students, employees and visitors beginning Friday.
The requirement will be in place when Kosciusko County is in orange or red, the two highest levels of spread on the state's color-coded coronavirus risk map, the district said. Masks will return to being optional when the county is in yellow, the second-lowest level of spread, for two consecutive weeks. Kosciusko was orange Wednesday.
Instructional and social activities may return to pre-COVID conditions under the mask mandate, Warsaw Community Schools said. “Healthy students will now be able to engage in more interactive instructional strategies with their peers without the risk of being quarantined,” the district said.
Niki Kelly of The Journal Gazette contributed to this story.