In early August, Monroe County commissioners voted 3-0 to require all people in Monroe County, vaccinated or not, to wear a face covering while indoors in a public space.
The health order, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was set to expire Sept. 30, unless repealed or extended. The Monroe County Health Department extended it through Oct. 31. The extension was approved by the county commissioners on Wednesday, Sept. 29.
The health order states that “for academic and extra-curricular activities, all K-12 schools in Monroe County shall follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Indiana Department of Education (IDOE), and the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH). It is recommended that Monroe County schools consult with the Monroe County Health Department, regarding best practices based on current, local conditions.”
Only one K-12 school in the county — Seven Oaks Classical School — did not require masks when they started school Aug. 11.
Here's what happened.
What is Seven Oaks Classical School?
Seven Oaks Classical School, a public charter school in Ellettsville, says it offers a traditional, classical education. Its mission is "to train the minds and improve the hearts of young people through a rigorous classical education in the liberal arts and sciences, with instruction in the principles of moral character and civic virtue."
The school opened in fall 2016 with 161 students in grades K-8, according to its website. By 2020, it had grown to more than 400 students.
In 2017, a group called the Indiana Coalition for Public Education of Monroe County filed a lawsuit asking that the school's charter be revoked. The lawsuit, which was eventually dismissed, claimed that because its charter was issued by a religious institution, it was unconstitutional.
Seven Oaks has a charter through Grace College and Theological Seminary, a self-described evangelical Christian institution in Winona Lake, Indiana. Seven Oaks had previously been denied a charter by other means, twice.
Indiana law allows the following entities to authorize charter schools: local school boards; the Indiana Charter School Board; any state educational institution that offers a four-year baccalaureate degree; a city executive such as a mayor; or a nonprofit college or university with a four-year baccalaureate or more advanced degree program.
The school's first senior class graduated in spring 2021, with 10 students.
2021-22 school safety planning
Seven Oaks Classical School's board in June passed a resolution concerning COVID-19 guidelines for the 2021-22 school year. Their policy stated that the school would operate in a "normal" fashion. That meant no mask requirements at any time for teachers, staff or students on campus or while participating in school-related or school-sanctioned activities.
Do charter schools have to follow public health orders?
Because the Monroe County health order requiring mask mandates applies to all indoor public spaces, that would include schools. Monroe County Health Department administrator Penny Caudill said in August that any school in the county refusing to comply would be in violation of the order.
According to Indiana Code 20-26-5-6, charter schools are subject to regulation by state agencies, like the secretary of education and state department of health, but also any local governmental agency “to which the state has been delegated a specific authority in matters other than educational matters and other than finance, including plan commissions, zoning boards, and boards concerned with health and safety.”
"A school’s adoption of its own rules, rather than following the CDC’s guidance or recommendation, would be a violation of the board’s order, in my opinion," Caudill said.
Seven Oaks says no
When Seven Oaks Classical School began the 2021-22 school year, it still had no mask rules in place and planned for a "normal" year.
Terry English, an attorney and member of the Seven Oaks board, said the school would strongly resist any mask mandate. The board, he said, believed it should be a decision left to parents.
“We do not believe that the health department has jurisdiction to force us into a position of requiring anyone within our school to wear a mask,” English said.
CDC guidance also recommended universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.
“We simply don't choose to follow the recommendations of the CDC,” English said. “The CDC has limited, if any, power to issue mandates, and we choose not to follow what the CDC has recommended. Now if the county takes that as being defiance of their order, then so be it.”
How did the county respond?
At first, the local health department hoped entities would voluntarily comply with the order. But legal action for not enforcing the mandate is a Class C ordinance violation, and fines already had been issued to those in violation. Legal action, including closing a business, also is possible.
Just more than a week into Seven Oaks' school year, Monroe County's health department issued a $250 fine to the school. Caudill issued the ticket after observing very few masks at the school.
Seven Oaks appealed, stating that it "is deeply concerned about the well-being of all in the school community. The school also prizes obedience to the law and the cultivation of civic virtue. We rejoice that there are formal institutions and processes to resolve disagreements over what the law requires, and we see it as a point of civic virtue to make use of those institutions and processes where disagreements arise that cannot be resolved informally.”
Monroe County Code 307-5 requires commissioners to review appeals to determine if implementation of the order causes harm due to any one of the following:
enforcing the health order would have an inverse impact on individuals experiencing a disability
the appellant has a compelling interest that justifies deviation from the health order and have taken measures that insures public health, or
appellant appeals that no violation of the emergency health order occurred.
Seven Oaks said in the appeal that 13% of its students qualify for special education services, and wearing a mask would present a barrier to effective learning.
The county's health order includes an exception to the mask mandate for those who are unable to wear a face covering for a documented physical, medical or health-related reason, as well as those for whom a face covering would present a safety risk.
A hearing was scheduled for county and school officials to discuss the problem.
Health order revision
On Sept. 1, 2022, the health department revised its order to clarify language, removing that K-12 schools "should" follow CDC guidelines and replacing the word with "shall." This change was made after Seven Oaks was cited for not following the public health order.
The subsection titled "schools" says "all K-12 schools including all private and/or public schools in Monroe County shall follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control." The CDC's recommendations include universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status.
Monroe County's health department no longer requires masking in public places.
What happened at the hearing?
Officials met virtually Sept. 20 in a public hearing.
Seven Oaks headmaster Stephen Shipp outlined three points in the five-page appeal:
That the emergency health order does not apply to schools.
That the compelling interest in education, maintaining the emotional social well being of students and maintaining a healthy partnership with parents and that the school’s 2021-22 COVID-19 protocols display measures taken to ensure public health justifies deviation from the health order.
That enforcing of the health order would have an adverse impact on students who are experiencing a disability and those who are facing potential disability.
Shipp said parents had enrolled their students in Seven Oaks with a belief that the school would allow them to choose whether their children would wear masks. "Other prevention measures exist besides masks, and indeed, the school has adopted a variety of protocols aimed at mitigating risks to public health including the risks posed by COVID-19," he said.
Shipp's statements showed a disagreement in the interpretation of the laws. County attorney Margie Rice asked Shipp if he thought "that your board's or your parents' opinion trumped the local board of health."
Referencing Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb's Executive Order 21-19, Shipp replied: “We thought that the executive order could be read, invites you to read, the governor himself suggested to be read, in a way that allowed a decision about masks to be made by a local school board."
Executive Order 21-19 reads:
"Except as provided below, K-12 school corporations are responsible for implementing local measures and restrictions to address the impact and spread of COVID-19 in their buildings, facilities and grounds."
When asked if the number of COVID-19 cases reported at Seven Oaks was disproportionate relative to those reported at other schools enforcing a mask mandate, Caudill said no, as far as she knows. As of late September, Seven Oaks had reported six positive COVID tests among its students and fewer than five among teachers, according to the state's online dashboard.
“To me, this fine has to stand,” Rice said in her closing statement. “I think you could call it a lesson in democracy for them. The state law is very clear. I would not be confused just because Dr. Shipp wants to read in ambiguity or read in confusion. It's not confusing. The state of Indiana has authority to regulate regarding health. They have delegated to their 92 counties the authority to regulate health. And charter schools have to follow those regulations. It’s really pretty simple.”
Grace College, which authorized the school's charter, wrote that the Seven Oaks board would have seven days to comply if they lost the appeal.
County officials: Charter school must comply
Monroe County's board of commissioners waived the $250 fine from the school's citation, but denied the appeal.
“Because the health order was clarified after the appeal, and your interpretation may have been sincere, we will waive the fine, but do expect you to comply with this and all future health orders,” board vice president Lee Jones said.
Did county officials violate Open Door Law?
Seven Oaks filed a lawsuit accusing the county commissioners and health department of violating Indiana's Open Door Law. The charter school also filed a formal complaint against the commissioners with the Office of the Public Access Counselor.
Public Access Counselor Luke Britt said advice he gave the commissioners about the matter underlying Seven Oaks' complaint was "potentially erroneous." The commissioners and Britt discussed the commissioner’s new duties related to appellate review of local health board enforcement actions and “how, in terms of practicality, the appeals procedure could reasonably be considered a quasi-judicial function, deliberations about which would not fall under the Open Door Law (ODL).”
Britt told The Herald-Times the issue was whether when acting in a quasi-judicial capacity the commissioners could deliberate behind closed doors because judicial activity is not covered by the Open Door Law.
Seven Oaks seeks to recoup its attorney fees, court costs and litigation expenses in the lawsuit.
Seven Oaks denied COVID-19 grant money
In December 2021, the Monroe County health department received $440,000 in federal funding to help local schools pay for expenses related to COVID-19. Seven Oaks submitted a letter of interest to receive grant funding, attesting that it had been in compliance with regulations.
Health department administrator Penny Caudill said this isn't true, citing the school's history of noncompliance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Monroe County commissioners did not consider the school's request for grant funds.
This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Indiana charter school Seven Oaks Classical School fights mask mandate