SOUTHERN INDIANA — Mask policies will look much different this school year for most Southern Indiana schools.

The majority of schools in Southern Indiana will not require masks this year, even as many students and adults in the community remain unvaccinated.

All of the public school districts in Clark and Floyd counties have announced that masks will be recommended but not mandated for unvaccinated students and staff within school buildings.

School buses will be the only places where masks are required due to federal requirements for public transportation.

Many students are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine at this time, since it is only approved for ages 12 and older.

Christian Academy of Indiana in New Albany started classes this Wednesday. Like public schools in the area, masks are optional for students and staff. The school is “highly recommending” those who are unvaccinated wear masks, according to Scott Luttrull, high school and middle school principal at Christian Academy of Indiana.

“We’ve been in contact with the Floyd County Health Department, we’ve read the CDC, [Indiana Department of Education] guidelines, so we’ve said here’s the recommendations, do what you want to do,” he said.

Luttrull said he is still seeing some students who are wearing masks but “it is not a high number.”

“We believe in letting people make their own decisions at this time,” he said.

Community Montessori will maintain a mask requirement for all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status. The first day of school at the New Albany school will take place Aug. 9.

Director Barbara Burke Fondren said more than 20 staff members worked together to develop the school policies through a COVID-19 safety committee.

About 70% of the student population at Community Montessori isn’t even eligible for the vaccination because of their age, according to Fondren.

“If we say people that are vaccinated don’t have to mask, then we’re not really modeling for the larger part of our population, and will the teens that are not vaccinated really keep wearing their masks when a portion of them are not,” she said.

Fondren said their policies are in line with American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent guidance for schools, which advises that everyone more than 2 years old should wear masks in schools, whether they are vaccinated or not.

If kids are outside and three feet apart, they will not have to wear masks, Fondren said, and the school will find ways for kids to take breaks from masks throughout the day.

She said the aim is to bring students back on campus this year without having to focus on a hybrid model that is difficult to implement with the Montessori education model, according to Fondren.

“We just decided that if we’re going to be a Montessori school, we want everyone on campus,” she said.

Although the school does not plan to offer a hybrid model for most students, they plan to work with families with children at high risk for COVID-19 who are not eligible for vaccination to develop a different plan as needed, she said.

Luttrull said “at the end of the day, we told families it is your decision between you and your doctor whether to get vaccinated or not.”

He said the school will continue close contact tracing for quarantine purposes, and the school has a UV air purification system that was installed last year.

The school is continuing its regular cleaning schedule and it is still asking students and staff to social distance “when feasible,” he said. The school is also limiting visitors at this time.

He notes that the school’s recommendations and policies are fluid.

“We will absolutely look at our own internal data and look at guidance from local health departments, but we told our parents this is what it is today, and we will roll with these as long as we can.”

Luttrull said the “health and safety of students and staff are first and foremost” and the school has learned “having students in this building is worth fighting for.”

“We are going to do whatever we can, we are going to do whatever is necessary to make sure students still get to be in the building,” he said. “The first day of school was so encouraging because we were looking at faces again, and we saw kids smiling.”

Christian Academy of Indiana is offering remote learning options for students for elementary and secondary students.

Fondren said she wants Community Montessori to be “unified” as a school community as they proceed with COVID-19 safety protocols this school year.

“We’re all going to stay masked at first, and then we’ll see what happens,” she said.

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