Last week, the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation approved a mask-optional policy for students and staff this school year. Now, the area’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 P-H-M 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, P-H-M 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.”
In a statement Tuesday, Thacker thanked the group on behalf of the school board, and said the district would consider their guidance.
“I would like to express our appreciation to Mr. Tracy and his colleagues for sharing their concerns with President Riley and me. We appreciate their expertise and commitment to health and safety,” Thacker said in a statement. “We will use their information as a presentation is developed for the School Board meeting on Monday, August 23.”
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.
This story has been updated.
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