COVID-19 trends haven't convinced Allen County's top public health official to relax his stance on masks in schools.
Dr. Matthew Sutter, the health commissioner, said the delta variant fueled a surge in infections that began late summer and rapidly increased as students returned to classrooms in August.
As of Oct. 1, more than 50 Allen County public and private schools had reported at least as many student COVID-19 cases to the state dashboard as they had reported last academic year. Some schools have logged two, three and four times as many cases.
Statewide, student cases totaled 32,963 as of the dashboard update last week. That's 92% of the 35,773 cases reported last academic year.
The numbers of cases in school are concerning, Sutter said, but he noted most stem from community spread.
“Masking in classrooms will not affect the rate of these cases from the community,” Sutter said by email.
However, he said, the Allen County Department of Health has repeated mask recommendations from other agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Indiana Department of Health, to limit the impact from schools.
“We continue to urge all schools to follow the guidance of the CDC, IDOH and the American Academy of Pediatrics that recommend masking in classes,” Sutter said.
It's against this backdrop that Northwest Allen County Schools will decide this week whether to continue the mask mandate it reinstated Sept. 1.
The mandate expires at 11:59 p.m. Thursday unless extended by the five-member board.
The board is scheduled to meet Wednesday.
While COVID-19 tends to affect children less severely, Sutter said, it's not a benign illness, and student infections have broader effects.
“There are deaths in children, which fortunately are uncommon,” Sutter said. “'Long COVID,' or symptoms associated with COVID-19 lasting more than two months, has been reported to be 4% or higher in infected children. And from a community perspective, children who are infected can bring the virus into their households and infect more vulnerable people.”
NACS, which has about 8,000 students, returned to masks the day Gov. Eric Holcomb announced leniency for schools' contact tracing and resulting quarantine practices when masks are required in all classrooms.
Student absences from on-site instruction because of COVID-related illness or quarantine fell to about 160 students – about 2% – during the 19 school days immediately after Labor Day compared with almost 1,300 students – 16% – during the first 18 mask-optional school days, according to a statement provided by NACS spokeswoman Lizette Downey.
These absences have declined each subsequent week, with only 14 students absent the week of Sept. 27, the district said.
“However, based on the updated quarantine procedures adopted by the IDOH on Sept. 1,” the statement continued, “if NACS continued with its mask optional procedures but continued with its current decline in actual COVID cases, then roughly 600 or more students would likely have been quarantined since Labor Day.”
Fort Wayne Community Schools, which began the academic year requiring masks, has experienced similar trends. The almost 30,000-student district began September with 2,500 to 3,000 students in quarantine and ended the month with fewer than 300 in quarantine, spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.
“Masks and the new guidelines have definitely reduced the number of students in quarantine,” Stockman said by email.
Minimizing lunchtime exposure has been the biggest challenge, particularly with all middle and high school students again attending in-person every day, Stockman said. To increase social distancing, she said, high schools might use the cafeteria and commons area for lunch instead of occupying only the cafeteria. Elementary students are eating in their classrooms, she added.
FWCS plans to offer evening COVID-19 testing hours at some schools. Anticipated to open late this month, these sites primarily will be for quarantined students and staff who could return to school sooner – after seven days instead of 10 – with a negative test, Stockman said.
“Students and staff who have COVID symptoms and have been unable to get a test elsewhere could also use the FWCS testing sites,” she said.
The East Allen and Southwest Allen County school boards last month rejected superintendent recommendations to require masks. Both have seen their quarantine numbers decline among their respective 10,000 and 7,700 student bodies.
About 350 of EACS students were in quarantine as of the last week of September, down from 964 students in quarantine during the last week of August, spokeswoman Tamyra Kelly said.
As of Monday, quarantine numbers at SACS were below 2% of the student body compared with 6.8% in late August, spokeswoman Stacey Fleming said.
Fleming stressed quarantine data is fluid because numerous factors affect the tally. Students can avoid quarantine and return to school immediately if they present proof of full vaccination or a positive COVID-19 test result within the last 90 days. Those exposed on the school bus – where masks are required per federal order – can also avoid quarantine.
Additionally, Fleming said, quarantined students can return on day eight with a negative COVID-19 test and on day 11 without testing, or they can sit out for the full 14 days.
All that means it's possible to have two positive cases at a school resulting in 36 students identified as close contacts and reported as quarantines but have “zero students missing school because of vaccination status, a past positive COVID-19 diagnosis, or the close contact exposure happened on the bus,” Fleming said.
Students' lives outside school also can put them in quarantine, Fleming said, noting exposures can happen at church, dance studios and among family.
“In this situation,” she said by email, “the state's dashboard would reflect zero cases, yet we could have 25 students in quarantine.”
Representatives of local teachers unions agree – conditions remain difficult despite expectations this academic year would be a return to normal.
One challenge is adjusting instruction for the many students academically behind because of the spring 2020 shut down and a year of virtual lessons, said Andra Kosmoski, president of the East Allen Educators Association.
“Then add on the large number of students who are out at any given point due to quarantines,” she said by email, “and teachers feel they just can't catch the students up.”
Managing in-person students as well as those affected by illness or quarantine creates a second layer of work for teachers, said Chris Broni, president of the Southwest Allen County Teachers Association, in an email.
She also noted quarantines are particularly challenging for students without home internet access. At the middle and high school levels, she said, students can rapidly fall behind their classmates.
“For these reasons,” Broni said, “teachers are continuing to observe high levels of anxiety in more of our students than in past years.”
Teachers at FWCS are seeing another learning curve among students who aren't used to coming to school every day, said Sandra Vohs, Fort Wayne Education Association president. They need a refresher on expected behavior, such as when they may use the bathroom.
“It's like kids forgot what it's like to be at school,” Vohs said.
Kosmoski said these challenges are only some that educators face.
“I could go on and on about the other stresses such as the impossible expectation of keeping students socially distanced when classrooms are full, the polarization of masks, and low vaccination numbers,” she said. “Not to mention, the shortage of teachers to fill open positions and the lack of needed substitutes.”
Student COVID-19 cases
The numbers reflect cases as reported to the Indiana COVID-19 dashboard as of 11:59 p.m. Oct. 1. Most are reflected as a range because schools with cases are listed as having fewer than five cases until they reach at least six student cases. The totals also don't include the almost 20 private and charter schools that haven't submitted data. Also, the newest Northwest Allen County school doesn't appear in the dashboard.
2021-22 - 2020-21
EACS 203-211 - 230-238
FWCS 639-691 - 420-492
NACS 218-226 - 237-241
SACS 168 - 138-142
Private 164-224 - 338-390
Source: Indiana COVID-19 dashboard
County case rate goes down
Allen County's average daily COVID-19 case rate has decreased from a peak of about 250 cases per day to about 150 a day, Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Matthew Sutter said, noting cases have plateaued recently.
He urged everyone to take precautions – including getting vaccinated, if eligible – when community spread is high.
Of residents 12 and older, 57.3% were fully vaccinated as of Thursday, according to the Indiana Department of Health.
Vaccination rates among Fort Wayne Community Schools students continue to inch up. As of Wednesday, 36% of high school students and 21% of middle school students had gotten the shots, spokeswoman Krista Stockman said. Rates in mid-September were 33% and 17%, respectively.
EACS, NACS and SACS do not track this information, their spokeswomen said.