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Northern Indiana Children's Hospital Urges Local School District To Rethink Mask-Optional Policy

Jeanie Lindsay
IPB News

Last week, a northern Indiana school district approved a mask-optional policy for students and staff this school year. Now, the region’s only children’s hospital is now urging the district to change that policy.

Five Beacon Health officials signed an Aug. 16 letter to the Penn-Harris-Madison school board saying the mask-optional policy “ignores the science and severity of the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus.”


They include Memorial Hospital and Beacon Children’s Hospital President Larry Tracy, Beacon Children’s Hospital Medical Director Dr. Amanda Dutkiewicz, Memorial Hospital Vice President of Medical Affairs Dr. Dale Patterson, pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. Asad Ansari and infectious disease specialist Dr. Majorie Daoud. 


The group said the country is experiencing an “aggressive surge” of the highly transmissible and contagious Delta variant, and masking is the most effective strategy to stop the spread.


“The children who are entrusted to the care of the PHM school district deserve to return to the classroom safely,” the letter reads. “To ignore the science and oncoming surge is to put children, their families, and our community in harm’s way unnecessarily.”


At the Aug. 10 school board meeting, PHM Superintendent Jerry Thacker said it’s more important for each family to make its own decision about masking based on state and local guidance. Board President Chris Riley added that different state and local metrics can confuse parents, reinforcing the need for individual choice. 


The Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the St. Joseph County Department of Health all currently recommend universal masking in schools. 


Of the 20 parents that spoke at the school board meeting, over half questioned the board’s decision, including five local doctors. Families have since protested the mask-optional policy and called for stricter guidelines.


Beacon officials “strongly advised” the school board to follow CDC guidance and require masks. 


“We also urge you and your staff to carefully consider the peer-reviewed medical facts and literature regarding vaccination against COVID-19,” the letter reads. “Vaccinations have proven safe and effective at significantly reducing the morbidity and mortality associated with this virus and its variants.”


Indiana state education officials have “strongly urged” masks in schools, but will not require them and are leaving the decision up to individual districts. 


The South Bend Community School Corporation implemented a universal mask mandate Aug. 2, and Goshen Community Schools made masks mandatory for staff and visitors in K-6 schools last week. All other area districts have remained mask-optional. 


P-H-M students go back to school this Wednesday, Aug. 18. The school board’s next meeting will be Monday, Aug. 23.