Health officer apologizes for school COVID policy confusion

The county health officer is apologizing for signing a letter “in a moment of frustration” regarding COVID-19 policies at local schools.

The Johnson County Health Department clarified its stance regarding health-related decision-making in schools, saying a lack of communication led to confusion about the decision-making process.

Health Officer Dr. Jefferson Qualls and Betsy Swearingen, the county health department’s director, signed a letter Sept. 21, when a mask mandate took effect at Franklin schools.

“On July 1, 2021, Gov. Eric Holcomb gave the local school boards power to decide their back-to-school COVID guidance,” the letter reads. “It is the role of the health department to give re-entry recommendations but the ultimate decisions are to be determined by the boards.”

The letter unfairly pointed a finger at school boards, Qualls said.

Decisions about mask mandates are ultimately up to school boards, but they look to the health department for guidance, and it is commendable when school leaders listen to medical professionals, he said.

“Schools have a long history of trusting the medical professionals locally and health departments locally, specifically when they make these decisions,” Qualls said. “They are medical decisions and they should be made by medical professionals as opposed to lay people. I think it was a timing issue and maybe inadequate communication on our part on settling disputes on our guidelines.”

The communication breakdown seems to have occurred after weekly calls between the health department and district leaders stopped due to increasing needs at Camp Atterbury, where thousands of Afghan refugees are being housed temporarily, he said.

“That overwhelmed us. Schools got put on the back burner,” Qualls said. “We shouldn’t have to deal with two global catastrophes in the same year.”

Weekly meetings between health and school officials have since restarted, he said.

Here is Qualls’ full statement:

“Dear residents of Johnson County,

First of all, I want to say that it is truly a privilege to be your county health officer. Unfortunately, new leaders are subject to making mistakes in their first few months, and I would like to apologize for recent remarks that have many confused. Two weeks ago, in a moment of frustration, I made a decision to sign a poorly worded letter from the health department. Obviously I had no idea of the repercussions that such a letter could have if it went viral on the internet. To be brief, the letter suggests that decisions regarding COVID-19 and schools are at the sole decision of the school boards themselves. In reality, these are essentially medical decisions that are the responsibility of medical professionals; however they are formulated locally, with guidance from the Indiana Board of Health and the CDC. In my opinion, it is wise for school boards to ‘follow the lead’ of the local health department and I promise to work in collaboration with them in the future as we make further choices regarding COVID-19 and our schools. Once again, I apologize for any confusion that I might have caused recently and look forward to working with everyone in the future.”

— Dr. Jefferson Qualls, county health officer