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Health

As Schools Weigh COVID-19 Protections, Advice From Local Health Officials Is Largely Unchanged

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Burnett Creek Elementary is part of the Tippecanoe School Corporation, which is making masks optional in the fall (WBAA News/Ben Thorp)

School boards and parents are debating the best ways to protect students from COVID-19 this fall - particularly whether K-6 students who are not eligible for the vaccine should still have to wear masks. 

  

Most schools are moving forward with plans to make masks optional in Tippecanoe County, with the notable exception of West Lafayette Community School Corporation, which will require masks among grades K-6 because those students are largely ineligible for the vaccine. 

At the West Lafayette school board meeting earlier this week where masking requirements for K-6 students were announced, some parents said they would consider moving their kids to another district that wouldn’t mandate masking. 

Despite these debates, guidance from local health departments remains largely unchanged. 

Tippecanoe County Health Officer Dr. Jeremy Adler said both because of low vaccination rates in the county and COVID variant strains, he has continued to recommend school officials require masks for those who are unvaccinated. 

“The mortality rate is certainly lower in younger individuals but younger individuals can still become quite ill from COVID-19 and end up needing to be hospitalized,” he said. 

Especially as schools transition to full capacity classrooms and students return from remote learning, Adler said masks are just as important. 

“We provided recommendations to all the school systems in Tippecanoe County,” he said. “They all received the same recommendations from the health department. Our recommendations really mirrored the back-to-school guidance that was released by the Indiana Department of Health.”

Adler said he’s hopeful that one or more of the vaccines will be approved for children under 12 sometime in the fall. 

Both Moderna and Pfizer are doing clinical trials of their COVID vaccines for children. 

Sean Sharma is the health officer for Fountain and Warren counties. He said transmission in classrooms was limited during the last school year - something he attributes to mask requirements. 

“The public health perspective is clear. The COVID-19 pandemic is not over,” he said. “Masking works and is an essential layer of protection that can help control the spread of disease and is most important for those that are not vaccinated.”

Sharma said using low COVID transmission rates in schools as a reason not to mask doesn’t make sense. 

“We were wearing masks and it worked, so now we should not wear masks and assuming that will work too. That’s not a logical conclusion,” he said. “It doesn’t align with basic common sense in terms of what we know about how COVID-19 spreads and it’s not supported by public health.”

The Metropolitan School District of Warren County and Southeast Fountain School Corporation have both moved to make masking optional.