CROWN POINT — The Lake County Council is poised to decide Tuesday whether to require face masks be worn by all students attending any elementary, middle or high school in the county, including private and charter schools.
Dr. Chandana Vavilala, the county health officer, is recommending the mask mandate to protect students and their families from COVID-19 as coronavirus case counts and hospitalizations near peak levels last seen in November and December 2020, prior to the availability of the free COVID-19 vaccine.
"Multiple studies have shown the benefits of (an) in-classroom model of education for all children and an aggressive masking program is our current best option to keeping students in the schoolhouse," Vavilala said.
However, a new Indiana law, enacted in April by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, bars Vavilala from unilaterally imposing a school mask mandate; the county council must consent to any health order more stringent than state requirements, as this one is.
The seven council members agreed Thursday they would vote on Vavilala's recommendation at the council's regular meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the Lake County Government Center in Crown Point, where masks are required for entry under a directive issued last month by the Lake County Commissioners.
Four votes are needed to put Vavilala's mask order into effect. At least one member, Councilman Christian Jorgensen, R-St. John, already has indicated he's opposed to the school mask mandate.
He said any decision on requiring masks should be made by each school board based on local circumstances, rather than having the county compel every school to do the same thing when it comes to protecting their students from COVID-19.
"If we do not validate the (health) order, the school boards still have the opportunity — the local body elected to run the schools — can bring the issue up or not bring the issue up," Jorgensen said. "It would be their decision. That's what the school board is for."
Many of the largest school districts in Lake County, including Crown Point, Hammond, Hanover, Highland, Hobart, Lake Central, Lake Station, Munster and Tri-Creek, already require face masks for most or all of their students, faculty, staff and building visitors.
After some initial controversy and protests, several districts quickly enacted mask mandates last week after Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb issued an executive order permitting asymptomatic students attending schools where everyone is masked to skip the 14-day quarantine previously required after exposure to someone with COVID-19.
Prior to the executive order, hundreds of students and staff in several Region school districts already were quarantined just days into the new school year, potentially further setting back their education after last year's virtual learning and other COVID-19 disruptions.
Masks also are required at the schools in East Chicago and Gary. The health officers in both cities, who operate independently of the county health officer, previously issued face mask orders that each were ratified by their respective city councils.
If Vavilala's order likewise is approved by the Lake County Council it would take effect immediately and is due to expire Sept. 30.
Lake County currently is classified as "orange" by the Indiana Department of Health, which means it's "approaching high spread" of the coronavirus and soon may join the 21 Indiana counties with the highest-possible "red" designation.
Altogether, 68 of the state's 92 counties are orange, and just three, including Porter County, remain at "yellow."
No Indiana counties retain the best-possible "blue" rating due in large part to the higher contagion associated with the prominent delta variant of COVID-19.
Hoosiers age 12 and up can protect themselves from COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death by getting the free COVID-19 vaccine without an appointment at 1,148 locations statewide, including most retail pharmacies, health clinics and hospitals.
A full list of vaccine sites is available online at ourshot.in.gov.