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Penn-Harris-Madison Schools drop mask mandate, will go mask-optional starting this Thursday

Jeanie Lindsay/IPB News

The Penn-Harris-Madison School Board voted unanimously Monday night to drop the district’s mask mandate and move to a mask-optional policy effective this Thursday.

PHM administrators originally proposed a staggered phase-out of the mask mandate starting with the end of the state public health emergency, which is currently set to expire in early March.

Then, the mandate would have been tied to state health department metrics — masks would have only been required when St. Joseph County was in the most serious “red” category, which indicates unchecked community spread of COVID-19.

But following a long discussion and numerous public comments against the mandate from unmasked parents and students, board members rejected the proposal and unanimously voted to end the mandate effective this Thursday.

District officials said they were comfortable with the change due to large declines in coronavirus cases and the availability of COVID-19 vaccines for students and staff.

According to state metrics, St. Joseph County is still in the “red” category. But on Monday, the county reported 128 new cases — a major drop from the all-time high of 1,114 four weeks ago (Jan. 24).

That trend has been mirrored in PHM’s COVID dashboard — in January, the district was averaging 42 cases per day among students and staff. Currently, the average is around five, with 26 reported in the last week.

Fifty-six percent of St. Joseph County residents are fully vaccinated, according to county data. But those rates do vary by age group, and youth vaccination rates remain low.

For example, 56.8 percent of the county’s 16 to 19-year-olds are fully vaccinated. But the vaccination rate for county 12 to 15-year-olds is 43.2 percent, and only 19.8 percent of the county’s 5 to 11-year-olds are fully vaccinated.

The vaccine is not yet available for children under 5. The two dose Pfizer vaccine is available for all children 5 and older, and boosters are available for children over 12.

Originally, PHM had adopted a mask-optional policy for the 2021-2022 school year, but drew backlash from local doctors. In response, the board adopted a mask mandate in late August.

Masks are still required on school buses under a federal mandate.

Contact Jakob at or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.

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Jakob Lazzaro came to Indiana from Chicago, where he graduated from Northwestern University in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and a double major in History. Before joining WVPE, he wrote NPR's Source of the Week e-mail newsletter, and previously worked for CalMatters, Pittsburgh's 90.5 WESA and North by Northwestern.