Gov. Eric Holcomb added a much-needed item to back-to-school lists Wednesday: masks.
By executive order, face coverings will be required for students in Grade 3 and above, faculty, staff, volunteers and anyone else in schools. Students will also be required to wear a mask during extracurricular activities, unless strenuous physical activity is involved.
The state mandate relieves school officials of one of countless decisions they must make in preparing for the start of school. But even if the governor had not acted, they had public health and safety guidance on their side. Fortunately, they've had a strong assist from state and local officials in that regard. The Indiana Department of Education and Indiana State Department of Health offered guidance early and suggested schools submit their plans to their local health departments for review. Schools also were advised to work with county health officials on how to handle reports of COVID-19 cases.
Mindy Waldron, administrator for the Allen County Department of Health, said her office acts as a consultant on reopening.
“The advice we give is based on the guidance we were given by IDOE and ISDH (as well as info put out by the CDC, etc.). We try to just guide them when they have questions, or provide feedback for sports, activities, and school re-entry planning ideas,” Waldron wrote in an email. “As to the decision to reopen or in what fashion (such as in-person, distance learning, or some form of hybrid), is all theirs as well. They merely share their plans with us and we comment.”
And it must be reassuring to East Allen County School parents, for example, to hear Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Matthew Sutter tell East Allen School Board members their district has “a solid plan.”
Every family will have to weigh the advantages and risks in choosing in-school instruction, with families of medically frail students facing particularly tough decisions. But every family should be confident that schools have approached reopening with health risks foremost in mind. The involvement of local health officials should only ease their concerns.
“It's been a very collaborative working relationship with the Allen County schools,” Waldron wrote. “It's a very engaged and proactive group of individuals who are attempting to make their planning the safest for their individual situations. We've been very pleased with the level of discussion around safety measures for school return plans. We've conducted numerous trainings, and created many helpful resources for them.”
Some readers have complained that commentary and political cartoons noting COVID-19 risks for students are frightening parents. But parents already are frightened. They are frightened for their own children, knowing there have been cases involving children and teens. They are frightened for the teachers, bus drivers and other adults who work closely with their children, knowing exposure to the coronavirus can be deadly for some adults.
Indiana parents, however, should be reassured by reopening plans directed by educators, including state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, who know best what problems to anticipate and also know to consult health experts for answers they don't have themselves.
The state has a long, disappointing record of ignoring education professionals on most school policy decisions, but Holcomb's willingness to let them take the lead here is a welcome exception. The mask mandate he approved this week is helpful, and the governor can do even more by ensuring schools have the financial resources – today and long after Election Day – to meet COVID-related needs.
Read the Indiana Department of Education's COVID-19 guidance at doe.in.gov/covid-19.