Appeal denied: Mask violation citation of Seven Oaks Classical School upheld by county commissioners, fine waived

A citation given to Seven Oaks Classical School for a violation of the county’s Aug. 5 mask mandate was upheld on Thursday afternoon by a unanimous vote of the three Monroe County commissioners.

Although commissioners denied the school’s appeal, they waived the $250 fine.

The citation was appealed by Seven Oaks on Aug. 25.

A formal hearing on the appeal was held earlier this week, on Monday.

The Aug. 5 mask mandate says that when community spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is high in Monroe County, as determined by state metrics, everyone “must wear a face shield, face covering, or mask…over their nose and mouth when in an indoor public place and shall at all times, follow current CDC guidelines in every situation.”

Schools get a specific mention in the Aug. 5 order: “For academic and extracurricular activities, all K-12 schools in Monroe county shall follow the guidelines of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Indiana Department of Education (IDOE), and the Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH).”

The Aug. 5 health order was amended on Aug. 23 to include a clarifying statement.

The additional, clarifying statement is in bold and underlined in the county’s document: “If the CDC recommends wearing face coverings, schools SHALL require students to wear face coverings during school, unless an exception listed in Paragraph 2 applies.

The Aug. 23 amendment was argued by Seven Oaks headmaster Stephen Shipp at Monday’s hearing to indicate that the Aug. 5 order was ambiguous.

The potential ambiguity of the order was part of the school’s contention that no violation of the health order had occurred.

In her motion on Thursday to deny the appeal, commissioner Lee Jones addressed Seven Oaks, “Because the health order was clarified after the appeal, and your interpretation may have been sincere, we will waive the fine, but do expect you to comply with this and all future health orders.”

The possibility that no violation occurred is one of the standards of review under the county code that regulates the appeals process for health order citations.

Under county code, in the context of an appeal, commissioners are supposed to review three possibilities: (1) Enforcing the health order would have an adverse impact on people experiencing a disability; (2) The appellant has a compelling interest that justifies deviation from the health order and has taken measures that ensure public health; or (3) No violation of the emergency health order occurred.

At a county board of health meeting on Sept. 8, members weighed the idea of vaccine promotion, instead of mask mandate enforcement as a better use of public health department resources.

But at their Wednesday (Sept. 22) meeting this week, the board voted to extend the mask mandate through the end of October.

The extension will need to be approved by the board of commissioners at their meeting next Wednesday (Sept. 29).

The decision of the commissioners on the Seven Oaks appeal was rendered Thursday at 3 p.m. at a continuation of their regular work session from the previous day. The continuation lasted just about two minutes.

Before the motion from Jones, president of the board of commissioners, Julie Thomas said, “I would first like to just thank Seven Oaks and the health department for providing us with a lot of documentation and great information. We learned a lot.”

Still forthcoming will be a written statement of the decision on the appeal, which is required to be issued within 15 days of the hearing.

[Updated Sept. 29 at 6:13 p.m. The county’s legal department has issued the written statement of a decision: Decision on Seven Oaks  Appeal Version 2 (Final) Decision on Seven Oaks Appeal ]

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