Aug. 20—PENDLETON — Dozens of parents took to the lectern Thursday at the South Madison Community Schools board meeting to plead with officials to side with them on masking and contact tracing in the schools.
The standing-room-only session, with about half the parents in an overflow area in the administration building's lobby, happened the same day that the district's middle and high schools returned to all-virtual learning. Fewer than a dozen of the 75 or so members of the public, and only two school board members, were masked, and there was almost no social distancing.
Almost all those who spoke, including Kyle August Novich, who described himself as "passionate, calm but troubled," demanded the district's mask mandate be lifted and new policies that keep students in the school buildings be put in place.
"Enough of the panic button. Enough of the masks," he said. "I question what we're doing and who we are trying to protect."
The demands come as the delta variant of the coronavirus is sending record numbers of people nationwide and in Madison County, including children, to hospitals. Both Riley Hospital for Children and Peyton Manning Children's Hospital in Indianapolis have reported running out of beds in their intensive care units.
Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over the summer said schools could make mask usage voluntary, officials there early in the school year revised their guidance, saying they should be mandatory. The American Academy of Pediatrics advocated mask usage all along, in part because the COVID-19 vaccine has not yet been approved for children younger than 12.
Discretion over mask policies is left largely to local school districts.
All districts in Madison County, except South Madison, went to mandatory mask usage a couple of weeks ago amid concerns about the fourth wave of the pandemic and its local surge. Anderson Community Schools, where officials hoped to make mask usage discretionary Friday, announced Wednesday that it would remain mandatory through Oct. 1.
South Madison Superintendent Mark Hall said the district did not make mask usage mandatory initially because it was following the established policy not to do so until the county went orange. He said earlier this week that the district was poised to make masks mandatory starting next week.
Lauren Freeman, the mother of a Pendleton Primary School first grader, was one of several speakers who provided statistics from sources, including the Mayo Clinic and the Indiana State Board of Health, demonstrating an almost nonexistent risk of death among children who test positive for COVID-19.
"It's been proven over and over again that COVID-19 does not affect children the way it might an adult."
Nikki King, whose daughter attends Maple Ridge Elementary School, was one of several parents who asserted the decision to wear masks should lie with parents.
"This is not your call to make. It's the parents'."
Amy Gustin Bruner, mother of an elementary and a high school student, said keeping students out of school will do nothing for public health.
"There will actually be more community spread because they're out of school with their grandparents," she said. "I believe the school knows faster than the county when there is an infectious outbreak."
But Cynthia Holiday, a resident of Fishers, said she made the decision to transfer her children to South Madison after deciding last year that the district's COVID-19 operations plan was superior to that of Hamilton Southeastern Schools and would provide a safer environment for her children. She encouraged the school board to stay the course, saying she believed her children had up to 400 hours more in-person instruction than they would have had at any of the surrounding school districts.
Board President Bill Hutton said he appreciated the public's interest in the issues of school safety surrounding COVID-19 and wished he and his colleagues would have started the dialogue with the public about it in July before school started. Several members of the public have submitted alternative plans and ideas they hope the board will implement, he added.
"The whole board cares about your concerns, and we want to make sure all viewpoints are heard."