CLARK COUNTY — Fewer students and staff are wearing masks in Greater Clark County Schools this school year as the district makes face coverings optional, a departure from COVID-19 protocols in the previous year.

School started Wednesday in Greater Clark, and the loosening of COVID-19 protocols was apparent as many walked through the hallways without face coverings.

This school year, Greater Clark is recommending unvaccinated students and staff wear masks inside the school buildings, but masks are not required.

School buses are the only places where students are required to wear masks due to federal requirements.

Greater Clark Superintendent Mark Laughner said this policy is in line with guidance from the Indiana Department of Health.

But on Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) modified its COVID-19 recommendations for mask-wearing due to the spread of the highly-transmissible Delta variant, advising that even those fully vaccinated against COVID-19 should wear a mask in areas of substantial or high spread of COVID-19.

The CDC now advises universal masking in K-12 schools for both unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals.

According to a data tracker from the CDC, Clark County is considered an area of high transmission, while Floyd County is considered an area of substantial transmission.

Laughner said the district will remain in communication with the Clark County Health Department and Indiana Department of Health regarding COVID-19 protocols throughout the year.

“As of right now, masks are optional,” Laughner said. “It’s a parent choice. We’re going to continue conversations with the county health department and the state health department, and if the decision is made by the county health department or the state health department or the governor to mandate masks, obviously we will follow that mandate.”

Jeffersonville High School juniors Dayanna Gaona and Maria Zayas, who are both unvaccinated, say if they are going to be “too close to people,” they plan to mask up at school, but they will probably not wear their masks if they can stay socially distanced.

Zayas said she completed school remotely last year, so it feels “weird” being back in-person. Gaona said she was in school last year in person, and “wearing the mask wasn’t too comfortable.”

“I’m glad they lifted up the mask [mandate], so it’s easier for everyone and everyone has a choice,” she said.

Jeffersonville High School freshman Jill Ward-Butler said she was excited Wednesday morning to start high school. She is planning to wear a mask in school, saying she wants to keep others safe, including teachers. She is not yet vaccinated but has her first shot scheduled this weekend.

Ward-Butler said she feels good about Greater Clark’s mask policies.

“It gives some freedom for people who don’t like to wear the masks,” she said.

Kimberly Nelson, the parent of a kindergartner at Northaven Elementary, said her son will likely wear the mask in school since it is recommended. She said she is feeling a little nervous due to concerns about positive cases of COVID-19, but she said the school “seems to be doing a good job making sure they are safe.”

Northaven Principal Laura Morris said she is telling parents although masking is optional, students are encouraged to wear masks “just because we know it works.”

“We did such a great job last year when we were wearing masks and kids weren’t vaccinated, so let’s keep it going,” she said. “We don’t want them to think all of a sudden COVID isn’t there when we know it is.”

Morris said the school will have plenty of masks available for students who need one on the bus or during the school day.

The American Academy of Pediatrics released guidance about a week ago recommending universal masking in schools regardless of vaccination status, and in a Tuesday news release, American Medical Association President Dr. Gerald E. Harmon released a statement in support of the updated CDC mask guidance.

“We strongly support the updated recommendations, which call for universal masking in areas of high or substantial COVID-19 transmission and in K-12 schools, to help reduce transmission of the virus,” he said in the statement. “Wearing a mask is a small, but important protective measure that can help us all stay safer.”

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