Southern Indiana

School board meetings in Southern Indiana turned into showdowns over mask mandates this week.

On Monday, Greater Clark County Schools started requiring all students and staff to wear masks in school buildings. The district put the mandate in place after 70 students tested positive for COVID-19 after eight days of classes. More than 1,100 students were quarantined, and two Jeffersonville High School football games were canceled.

On Tuesday, Greater Clark’s board meeting was interrupted by parents who opposed the mandate before the board could take up its first agenda item. Several police officers were present at the meeting due to expected protesters, and those in attendance were checked with a metal detecting wand as they entered.

Despite a district-wide mandate and “mask required” signs on exterior doors, more than 20 people sat in the boardroom without face coverings. Greater Clark Board President John Buckwalter began the meeting by asking each of them to wear a mask or leave.

After objections from the crowd, a recess was called. One man said police would have to “physically remove” him, but he and his family left voluntarily after about 20 minutes.

“It’s important to note that we’re trying to run a business meeting,” Superintendent Mark Laughner said. “I thought Mr. Buckwalter handled it really well in calming the situation down, taking a little recess, and then we got back to work and got our business taken care of.”

The meeting continued without interruption for the remainder of the agenda, aside from a brief exchange between board members and the audience at the end of the evening. Only three people spoke during public comments.

One speaker asked the board for more virtual learning options, one was in favor of the mask mandate, and one was opposed. Michael Linz spoke out against how often COVID-19 prevention guidelines are altered.

“More children every day are just being mentally and physically drained from all these COVID regulations that you all keep changing,” he said. “You guys are very inconsistent, as well as everybody in the government.”

Laughner said his goal is to keep students in the classroom. During the height of the pandemic last year, many students were forced to participate in virtual learning.

If cases continue to rise, Laughner worries that will again be the case this year. One school, Franklin Square Elementary, announced a shift to virtual learning for the remainder of this week due to a high number of staff and students in quarantine.

“As we all know, in-person instruction is the best instruction, so we felt like we needed to make some adjustments so we could keep our kids in school and be in the classroom,” Laughner said. “That was very important to us, and the data was just showing that we needed to make a change and go to a mandate.”

New Albany Floyd County Schools’ (NAFCS) board meeting on Monday night drew a much larger crowd than the one at Greater Clark. Last week, Floyd County Health Officer Dr. Tom Harris issued a mask mandate for students in grades K-6. But county commissioners quickly challenged the mandate, and Harris canceled it.

On Sunday, NAFCS superintendent Brad Snyder announced new guidelines that relied on the Indiana State Department of Health’s color-coded map. If Floyd County is in the “orange” or “red” zones according to the map, masks would be required for all schools. The county was “yellow” at the time of the guideline’s implementation.

Harris and Snyder said the county will move into the “orange” category when the state updates its color-coded COVID-19 map on Wednesday, meaning masks will be required in all NAFCS schools.

Dozens of anti-mask protesters lined up outside of the NAFCS administration building on Monday ahead of the school board meeting. Like Greater Clark, the board took a recess early in the meeting after the crowd repeatedly interrupted the proceedings. The NAFCS board ultimately voted 6-1 to approve Snyder’s plan.

The protest was largely organized in the Facebook group “Our Kids, Our Choice NAFCS,” which has nearly 950 members. Ahead of the meeting, three local doctors — Mark E. Bickers, D. Mark Bickers and Dan Eichenberger — released a joint letter on the page decrying the mandate. None are epidemiologists. The letter referred to masking as a “popular virtue-signaling tool” and said “draconian lockdowns and isolation” are leading to increases in sexual abuse of children and homicide rates in “urban areas.”

“There is no data for the impact of masking on anxiety, depression, social and emotional development, and long-term learning/education,” the letter said. “We are writing that history now, and we won’t know the effect for decades. We strongly recommend mandates be eliminated in our schools. The risk/benefit ratio cannot be validated or justified.”

Experts say, and research shows, masks have been effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19.

Many parents sent the board emails to be read aloud at the meeting, instead of attending in-person. Carrie Klaus is a parent of a NAFCS student. She said the pro-mask faction is large, but some of its members didn’t feel comfortable attending the board meeting.

“I wanted to stay at the school board meeting last night, but decided to leave whenever it was obvious that it was a room full of unvaccinated and unmasked people,” she said. “I think what the whole thing boils down to is a lack of compassion and empathy. It’s very much a group of people who think that because it’s not happening to them, that it’s OK. And there’s a lack of understanding of the potential for becoming very ill and maybe dying from COVID.”

Indiana’s moving average of daily COVID-19 cases is now 1,839, more than six times higher than it was a month ago. Hospitalizations have increased by nearly 900 in that time frame, to 1,318. 

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.