Indiana's Largest Teachers Union Wants Governor To Require Masks For Students

Jul 15, 2020

Indiana State Teachers Association President Keith Gambill speaks at a 2019 press conference.
Credit Indiana Public Broadcasting

The state’s largest teachers union called on Gov. Eric Holcomb to take a more direct role in how, or if, schools reopen for in-person teaching.

The Indiana State Teachers Association met with Holcomb Tuesday to express concerns about the return to classroom teaching. The virtual meeting was a follow-up to a letter Holcomb received from the association last month, with ten “requests” to address the impact of the pandemic on the 2020-21 school year.

Association leaders said they are most frightened about vulnerable educators and students catching coronavirus. ISTA President Keith Gambill said there is no federal or state guidance that adequately addresses this concern.

Without guidance, the association said, these children and adults may not return to schools until a vaccine is developed.

“We’ve got a lot of folks with a great deal of fear,” Gambill said Tuesday during a Facebook Live briefing to teachers about his meeting with Holcomb and Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box.

Gambill and association leaders told Holcomb about concerns with transporting students, helping students with special needs wear protective masks, a lack of full-time nurses at schools, and ability to acquire personal protective equipment.

Gambill wants Holcomb to issue standards for when schools should close or reopen -- with specific actions that correlate to resources and the known number of COVID-19 cases in the state and local communities.

He also asked Holcomb to require face masks in schools for some students.

“We’ve had a number of communities who have said you must wear a mask,” Gambill said about county-wide ordinances. “We believe that needs to carry on into our schools. And that they should be mandatory for (grades) 6-12.”

Students in grades K-5 should wear masks at times and be taught how to use them, Gambill said.

Many of the state’s 291 public school districts will begin opening in the next two weeks.

Indianapolis Public Schools is requiring all students to wear a mask if they attend in-person classes and when riding a school bus. 

Two districts have announced they will only provide virtual teaching, to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The school board of one district, Washington Township, criticized Holcomb and other leaders for only providing “limited specific guidance” on whether and how schools should reopen.

Holcomb, in a statement, did not address whether he was considering ISTA’s requests.

“Today’s meeting was a valuable conversation that will continue as we collaborate with educators and health care professionals to ensure students and staff are safe,” Holcomb said. “I appreciate the dedication of these teachers, who work so hard to ensure children receive the best education possible during this ever changing situation.”

Gambill and other ISTA leaders at the meeting said Holcomb was aware of the issues they raised.

"I know you are frightened, I am too," Gambill said. "But we have to lean upon one another. Now is the time we really begin to work and lift up our profession for the betterment of society.”

The requests ISTA made of Holcomb include:

  • Eliminating or reducing standardized testing for the school year.
  • Consistent access to protective equipment for school staff and students
  • Issue waivers from the 180 instructional days requirement so schools can quickly react and close due to COVID-19 spikes.
  • Alter policies that don’t penalize students or teachers for leaving school or being absent because of illness

Contact WFYI education reporter Eric Weddle at eweddle@wfyi.org or call (317) 614-0470. Follow on Twitter: @ericweddle.