New Albany Floyd County school board 06-29-20.jpg

NEW ALBANY, Ind. (WDRB) -- Schools in New Albany Floyd County Consolidated School Corporation will require students to wear face coverings as they reopen to in-person instruction.

The district's school board approved a resolution 6-1 Monday endorsing the reopening plan, which was revised hours earlier to include mandatory masking for students unless social distancing could be achieved or staff asked for their removal during activities.

Board member Jenny Higbie was the lone "no" vote and said she preferred lifting the requirement for students in kindergarten through fourth grade.

The board heard from many supporters and opponents of mandatory masking before the vote, most from emails that were read aloud during a public comment period.

Wearing face coverings to limit the spread of COVID-19 has become a divisive issue in the country despite public health agencies, inlcuding the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urging the public to wear masks when social distancing is not possible.

NAFCS Superintendent Brad Snyder noted that the district's guidance for the July 29 reopening of schools will likely change as public health directives on COVID-19 evolve.

"It's only a beginning," he said. "... It's going to be a tough year for our students and a tough year for our principals and a tough year for our teachers."

Joe Brown, the board's vice president, said the district could change its guidance as needed.

"If it's not right, we'll fix it," he said. "Let's let the teachers, the administrators, the staff get there, get it done and trust them to do their jobs."

Masking for students was originally strongly recommended in the district's reopening guidance, but after nearly two hours of discussion during a work session Monday, board members decided to make masking mandatory.

While some opponents of mandatory masking have threatened to pull their children from schools, board member Lee Ann Wiseheart said the most important thing from her perspective was "the safety of our staff and our students."

"Hundreds of teachers" in the district reached out to her after the board discussed reopening plans at a recent work session, she said.

Medical professionals "have all said that masks absolutely help as a deterrent, so I'm confident with that," Wiseheart said.

Higbie, the only vote against Monday's resolution, said the American Academy of Pediatrics cautioned against requiring students in elementary schools to wear masks or face coverings.

Those guidelines "stipulate that it will do more harm than good for us to require them to wear masks," she said, suggesting a review of the district's plan two weeks after reopening.

"I care about all of our students, all of our staff," Higbie said. "I have my own children that attend these schools. I absolutely don't want to put anybody at risk. Safety is a No. 1 priority for me."

In its guidance, the American Academy of Pediatrics says students in elementary schools should be required to wear masks if the benefits of doing so outweigh potential harms, such as increased face touching.

District officials said they planned to purchase 12,000 masks through the district's share of the federal COVID-19 stimulus package.

Misty Ronau, whose daughter is a rising sixth-grade student at Scribner Middle School, said the district has been put "in a bad position" given the need to implement sweeping changes to how schools operate without adequate financial support.

She said while the CDC and others have urged people to wear masks to limit the spread of COVID-19, many are clearly ignoring such guidance.

"You see that that's not an opinion that's shared by every parent in the community," she said. "A trip to Kroger will tell you that's not true. At the same time, our schools are trying to serve an entire community with differing communities."

Other provisions of the district's reopening plan include allowing students to start the school year with virtual instruction and randomly checking temperatures within the schools based on state guidance.

Copyright 2020 WDRB Media. All rights reserved.