Students in Jay County will have a few more weeks of summer break.

Jay School Board during a special meeting Wednesday voted first to modify the corporation’s reopening plan to comply with Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s mask mandate and then to delay the start of school until after Labor Day to allow time to adjust to the changes.

Classes are now slated to begin Sept. 9. The previous start date was Aug. 12.

The school board originally approved its reopening plan July 20. In that version, masks were recommended for students but not required. Two days later, Holcomb announced that he would be signing an executive order requiring masks statewide in public places where social distance (6 feet) cannot be maintained.

The board then met in executive session Monday and earlier Wednesday to discuss modifications to its reopening plan in light of the governor’s mandate.

The reopening policy changes address masks as follows for students in third grade and older:

•Required while on buses and during passing periods.

•In classrooms, recommended but not required when social distancing can be maintained; required when social distancing cannot be maintained

•Recommended but not required during recess, lunch and physical education class

•Not required during extracurricular or co-curricular activities, such as athletics, band and choir where social distancing can be maintained

For students in second grade and younger, masks are required while on buses and during passing periods. They are recommended, but not required, in the classroom.

Exemptions are granted for students with a medical or mental health condition or disability that prevents wearing a mask.

Enforcement of mask wearing will follow the state’s lead, with a focus on “education and communication with families in concert with our local health department,” the corporation’s updated policy says. Failure to follow the policy could result in exclusion from school — similar to other health-related issues such as not having the required vaccines — with the ability to shift to the online option.

Board members Phil Ford, Ron Laux, Krista Muhlenkamp, Jason Phillips, Donna Geesaman and Chris Snow, absent Mike Shannon, had a lengthy discussion about the policy updates before the vote, with Snow as the most vocal critic of the changes.

Snow argued that the policy is a “slippery slope,” saying it would put teachers in the difficult position of judging social distancing and deciding whether masks are needed. He said he believes it should be an individual decision.

“If you want your kid to wear a mask, put them in a mask,” he said. “If you don’t want your kid to wear a mask, don’t put them in a mask.”

Other board members said they understood where Snow was coming from and that they aren’t happy with the position they’ve been put in by Holcomb’s order. But, as superintendent Jeremy Gulley noted in presented his policy update recommendations, the school board’s legal counsel advised that the governor’s order “has the force of law.”

Muhlenkamp noted that she was among those who said she would not send her children back to school if masks were mandated, but referred to the changes approved Wednesday as a plan she can “tolerate.”

“Do I love it? No,” she said. “But do I want my kids back in school? Yes.”

Gulley explained to the board and the 50-plus members of the public in attendance that based on survey comments over the course of the last week he had seen the opportunity for a middle ground. It seemed many understood that masks would be required, he said, but that parents didn’t want their children to have to wear them for the entirety of the day. He said he worked with Jay County Health Department on an effort to allow masks to be optional if 4 feet of social distance could be maintained, saying the corporation could have gotten a “substantial amount” of classrooms to that standard. But, he said, as of Wednesday’s meeting, officials at the state health department had not been willing to make that compromise, instead referring Gulley back to the governor’s order that requires 6 feet of social distance.

Laux noted the continued uncertainty of the situation as one of the biggest challenges.

“No one knows,” he said. “No one’s ever experienced a mess like this. Nobody knows what to do, how to fix this.”

The change to the reopening plan was approved on a 5-1 vote with Snow dissenting.

Gulley encouraged the board to delay the start of school in part to allow the corporation to adjust to an expected increase in interest in the corporation’s online-only option — Jay Virtual School — in response to the mask mandate. The deadline to register for either the in-person or online option is now Aug. 7.

Previously, 8 percent of the corporation’s students had signed up for the online option. A survey over the course of the last week showed 23.5 percent of the 678 respondents saying they would now choose the online option with another 29.2 percent saying they are unsure of which they would choose.

The extra time will also allow things to settle down, both locally and at the state level, Gulley added. There could be more changes to state regulations in the next month, he said, with Phillips noting that the governor’s current executive order mandating masks expires Aug. 26.

The shift of the start of school passed unanimously, with board members agreeing staff would need time to adjust to the changes.
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