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BUNKER HILL — Students will be required to wear masks when they return to class next week at Maconaquah.

The school board voted to require masks Wednesday evening. The district was previously mask-optional to start the year.

The decision passed 6-1, with board member Allen Willson voting no.

The decision comes after Maconaquah moved classes completely online last week after positive cases and quarantined students put the absentee rate between 34.5% and 64%, depending on school building.

There have been 147 positive COVID-19 cases this school year among students and school staff, according to case data presented at Wednesday’s meeting.

There were 136 cases last year.

Miami County is averaging 30 cases a day, most occurring in unvaccinated people, according to Dr. James Rudolph, county health officer. It is a stark increase from the two-case-per-day average the county had been recording.

Rudolph said the delta variant is targeting younger people.

Requiring masks stands to keep more students in school, as it cuts down the contact tracing distance from 6 feet to 3 feet.

Without masks, any student who was within 6 feet for 15 minutes of someone who tests positive is required to quarantine. With masks, that distance shrinks to 3 feet.

Contact tracing distances are included in the Indiana Department of Health’s COVID-19 control measures.

“The 6-foot rule is killing us,” Superintendent Jamey Callane told an audience of more than 100. “We’re putting too many kids out.”

Contact tracing and sending asymptomatic students home has been a point of ire for parents not only at Maconaquah but across the state.

Lewis Cass voted last week to allow asymptomatic students who were exposed to COVID-19 to attend school, so long as they are not sick. Those students must check in with the school nurse every day for 14 days — the recommended quarantine time.

Some parents were in favor of Maconaquah adopting a similar policy. However, school board attorney Chandler Flynn said it would not meet the letter of the law.

Schools are required to follow certain COVID-19 control measures, such as reporting positive cases and contact tracing.

“We recommend, legally, you do not skirt those mandates or requirements, in part because of the liability issue,” Flynn said. “You open yourself, as a school corporation, to liability if you do not follow the guidelines and legal requirements that are set forth around COVID-19.”

Both civil and criminal liability are possibilities, and intentionally disregarding requirements could mean gross negligence, she added.

Despite the opposition to masks and contact tracing from the audience, there was one common thread among parents, school administration and the board: In-person learning is best.

“There has to be give and take on both sides, guys,” board president Robert Daine told the crowd. “We can’t just be so rigid this is the avenue we’re going down and we’re not coming back. … We all have to work together for the best of these kids.”

Requiring masks was the best way to keep students in school, Callane said.

Parents and community members were permitted to speak toward the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting.

Public comment was capped at 30 minutes total. however, the board allowed comments to go over the threshold to allow everyone a chance to speak who wanted to.

Most stated they wanted their kids in school and were critical of online learning. Many were opposed to masks and sending asymptomatic students home.

Only one commenter explicitly supported a mask requirement.

Despite the polarized topic that has come to dominate school board meetings, especially in suburban Indianapolis, Wednesday was mostly civil.

Daine only had to call for order a few times. The board president fielded questions from the audience and allowed people to state their case on multiple occasions, long after public comment had ended.

Nearly every mention of vaccines was contentious, though.

Just minutes after Joe Rife, the Maconaquah teacher’s union president, said kids needed to be respectful in class and recommended people get vaccinated, someone in the audience shouted, “Keep your opinions on vaccinations to yourself,” as he left the microphone.

Only 33.5% of the Miami County population is fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There were also times during the roughly 15 minutes Rudolph spoke where audience members wanted to dispute, argue or dismiss what the doctor had to say.

After the mask requirement passed, an amendment was considered and ultimately voted down to exempt Pipe Creek Elementary School from the mask requirement due to its low case numbers.

Masks will be required at all Maconaquah schools.

The superintendent reassured parents they will reconsider the mask policy once case numbers drop.

“When the delta variant calms down, we’ll take another look at it,” he said.

Spencer Durham can be reached at 765-454-8598, by email at spencer.durham@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at @Durham_KT.

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