Elkhart Community Schools implement mask mandate

ELKHART, Ind.-- Elkhart Community Schools are reversing course, implementing a mask mandate, after 62 students and staff tested positive for the coronavirus, and 205 were in close contact with them, within the first week of school. Approving the new mandate was a close call, in a 4-3 vote. 

“Just as our community tends to be divided about this issue, members of our board did as well,” Elkhart Community Schools Superintendent Steve Thalheimer said. “Overall, for the vast majority of our students and for the school district as a whole for us to remain in session and give that instruction, the board and I would agree and feel it’s necessary to have that mask mandate in place.” 

Discussing a change in COVID mask rules in schools was not listed initially on the school board agenda, until right before the meeting began Tuesday night. 

“The main thing people were voicing and upset about last evening was that they felt this was something that was snuck in and avoid public comment and all of that, but that’s not the case,” Thalheimer said. 

Some parents, who are in favor of staying mask optional, feel that is the case, though. 

“I’m furious. Along with many, many other parents,” Elkhart parent Kristie Hess-Newton said. "There were about 15 parents at the whole meeting. 90, 99% of the parents at Elkhart schools had no clue that they would have had an opportunity to voice their opinion. I just think that it was shady.” 

As of right now, Superintendent Steve Thalheimer says the mandate is not permanent and will be evaluated in discussions with the school board every few weeks. 

“There may be a little back and forth on that but we will constantly be accessing our case count numbers, what’s happening in the community around and working with local officials,” Thalheimer said. 

But even with the rising case counts and quarantines in the district, some parents, still aren’t having it. 

“I’m going to give my kids the option. My two high schoolers came to me last night and informed me that they will not be wearing a mask,” Elkhart parent Kayla Spurlock said. 

“My kids will probably not be involved in Elkhart community schools, personally,” Hess-Newton said. 

Elkhart schools plan to enforce the mandate by keeping a close eye on everyone inside the building, posting and verbalizing reminders and if things get out of hand, even detention. 

For students who can’t wear a mask, accommodations can be made. 

While there's major backlash towards the decision, Superintendent Thalheimer hopes everyone can move forward respectfully. 

“All we are trying to do in putting this in place is that we are able to maintain students in our building and give them the in-person instruction that so many people across the board are saying they want for our students because we know that’s going to be the key to academic achievement and wellbeing,” Thalheimer said. 

The mask mandate is in effect starting tomorrow (Thursday) for Elkhart schools, but will be fully enforced starting Monday to give time for the adjustment. 

A mask protest is being held by parents to try and change board members minds on Friday outside the school building.

According to the school district’s online COVID-19 dashboard, as of Wednesday, there are currently 25 confirmed cases in students, five confirmed cases in staff members and 159 identified close contacts.

The school district defines close contacts as individuals who were within six feet of an individual with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes.

Elkhart Community Schools’ requirement comes about a week after the Elkhart County Health Department encouraged schools to change their indoor masking policy due to the rapid spread of the Delta variant.

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