Will It Be “Masks Optional” Starting in January at HSE Schools?

At the November 10th Hamilton Southeastern (HSE) Schools Board meeting, superintendent Dr. Stokes commented on one of the most contentious topics for today’s public schools – masks. Dr. Stokes commented that she will be presenting an updated operations plan at the December HSE School Board meeting that could include a recommendation to make masks optional starting in January of 2022. Dr. Stokes mentioned that because she is planning to talk about the operations plan in December, the community will be able to address the board per School Board guidelines (generally 2 to 3 minutes per person depending on the number of people requesting to speak).

Dr. Stokes did, however, provide insight into what she is considering and into why she is not proposing to lift the HSE mask mandate now. As many are aware, students that are in the 5 to 11 age range can now get vaccinated. This has many asking for the mask mandate to be lifted now. R. Dr. Stokes mentioned a number of items that impacted her decision for delaying until at least the start of the new calendar year to make a change.

Reason it is not now include:

  1. HSE offers a virtual option; however, it is generally restricted to starting or stopping at each semester. Parents can’t exercise a switch to or from virtual learning versus in-person learning until second semester.
  2. Even if the mask mandate were lifted now, all students riding buses would still be required to wear mask while on the bus. This is a federal requirement, thus not something the local administration or board will change. The Federal mandate won’t be revisited until mid-January.
  3. Even if a younger student gets vaccinated now, due to the waiting time for the second shot, they won’t be fully vaccinated until mid-December. More to this point, Dr. Stokes stated that she has been told that the clinics are so full that kids are being scheduled to future dates to get their vaccinations. This means it is unlikely that kids will have the chance to be fully vaccinated even by mid-December.
  4. Repeating a topic that has come up before — and that was a primary cause of going virtual last year — the substitute teacher pool is still an issue. The ability to staff and supervise students has been impacted this year by a sub pool that is not delivering the needed number of substitutes. It was stated that only about 10% of the people in the sub pool are actually willing to come into the schools to fill a sub role. This means there are unfilled teaching assignments happening in our school buildings.
    Dr. Stokes stated that with masks being optional, there could be an increase in quarantined students. If there were no masks in a classroom, then this could cause an entire class to be quarantined.
  5. Dr. Stokes also commented that there have been spikes after holidays. This happened with Fall Break. With the Thanksgiving holiday coming up and then the winter break, it is expected that there could again be spikes based on past data. As such, another consideration was to wait until after the holidays

Related to the spikes Dr. Stokes commented that she and the district are looking closely at a lot of data. It isn’t just the school data, but also data from other sources such as the health departments. This data is also a factor in decisions being made.

Dr. Stokes had Jeff Harrison, (HSE IT) show some of the data they are tracking internally. This included presenting a couple of graphs.

HSE Covid

In this first graph, the blue bars are the number of students that have been impacted by covid by either testing positive, showing symptoms or being quarantined. The red line is the percentage of students impacted.

The arrow is when masks were implemented. After about a week, there was a notable down trend. The numbers then leveled out with 350-400 students until Fall break, when the numbers started going back up. The second chart, which is presented below shows Fall Break and then the trend moving back up again.

In addition to the data that Jeff Harrison presented, the school dashboard also continues to show the numbers being shared publicly. You can see that the two weeks after fall break have trended up on the number of positive cases in both students and teachers. You can see the current data at THIS link.

HSE Covid - 11-7

About Going Mask Optional at HSE Schools…

Dr. Stokes and her team have to have a plan in place. They will also show a plan at the December school board meeting. The district plans to have metrics in place based on City and State guidelines. If the district goes mask-optional, then they will also have to have threshold for when to go back to requiring masks. This is similar to the State’s 20% attendance threshold that requires school districts to report if this number of students attending school drops by 20%. If this happens, the state can close a school. HSE tries to respond to low attendance before hitting the state threshold to avoid the state getting involved.

Like the State threshold, the Fishers Board of Health or the Indiana Board of Health could close a school if the school hit a Covid related threshold. Schools would rather have the option to wear masks or take other actions rather than being closed. Noblesville has had to close a school, so it is clear that can happen. HSE doesn’t want to get to the point where we would have to close a building – and it was stated that HSE has been close to the threshold. The plan at this time is that there will be metrics that will determine if individual schools need to go back to masks.

Dr. Stokes is look at metrics. Dr. Stokes and the administration are talking with teachers about the impacts based on various metrics. That feedback will also be factored into any changes to the operation plan as well. This feedback will be incorporated into what is presented in December.

In short, the district is planning to go mask optional for second semester. Some parents have commented that it would be wise to wait a couple of weeks after the start of the semester to try to reduce any spikes that might happen from the break. This could also help align closer to the time that the Federal government might should they decide to change the mandate for masks on the bus.

Dr. Stokes indicted that the district is not mandating vaccinations. They are looking at the data and listening to feedback. She indicated the most important thing is to make a decision that will keep students in school (SIS). I’ll state the obvious in that doing whatever is necessary to reduce the spread is a key to achieving the most students in school.

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This post is based on my Live Notes from the HSE School Board meeting on November 10th, 2021.

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