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RUSSIAVILLE — Students at Western will be required to wear masks starting Monday, following a school board vote Wednesday.

Western is the second Howard County school in as many weeks to reverse its mask-optional policy.

Like Northwestern, and Maconaquah in Miami County, Western’s decision to revise its COVID-19 policies comes after positive cases and quarantines have sent a number of students and staff home.

Western has had 118 positive COVID cases among students in less than a month of school. There were 97 total cases among students in the first semester of last year.

The mask requirement follows new state guidance from last week that allows students who are identified as a close contact to remain in school, if the school has a mask requirement.

There is no opt out at Western; all students are required to wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status, barring a medical exemption. Superintendent Katie Reckard said an opt-out option isn’t in the state’s guidance.

“They were clear in the guidance,” she said after the meeting. “It’s all or nothing.”

Northwestern allowed parents to opt their child out of the mask requirement, however, those students who opt out are subject to quarantine if they are a close contact.

The board approved the mask requirement 6-1, with board president Donna Shepherd voting no.

Board member Linda Singer said a mask requirement will help ensure more students stay in school. Western has had more than 400 students at home, depending on the week.

“I think our concern that if we don’t do masks, we’re going to have more and more students quarantined,” Singer said, prior to voting. “It seems to me it (masks) makes it more positive for the students to be in school getting their education.”

“I believe if a mask can provide even a little bit more protection for a student or staff member — for anyone in our Western family — I believe it is our responsibility to make sure that happens,” added board member Pam Carter.

Shepherd said she voted against the mask requirement because positive case numbers are dropping at Western. The first week of school, there were 33 cases, which jumped to 47 the next week and fell in the third week to 35.

“I’m hoping Western has turned a corner and our numbers come down,” she said after the meeting.

Despite her no vote, Shepherd urged a passionate audience to consider school staff and the stress they face.

Parents and community members gave their input prior to the board’s vote. The board room was nearly full.

And like other school board meetings, despite the polarized and politicized issue there is a common thread — keep kids in school.

More people spoke in favor of a mask requirement than those who didn’t, though there were plenty who were opposed and vocal.

Public opinion on mask requirements has shifted, at least at Western.

A survey sent to parents, prior to the change in close contacts and quarantine, had about two-thirds of respondents opposed to a mask requirement.

However, a survey taken after the change in guidance, had 51% of parents in favor of a mask requirement.

Reckard said the mask requirement is fluid. The school board can vote to drop or reinstate it at any time. The superintendent said it will depend on case numbers.

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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