Group takes to social media over school COVID policies

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HANCOCK COUNTY — School boards across Hancock County have tough decisions to make.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has given Indiana school corporations much more local control over their policies going forward than they have had during the pandemic so far. Statewide school closures and mask mandates are a thing of the past. Instead, each school board is being tasked with choosing the requirements that will be in place for their students when school resumes in three weeks.

That’s the decision parents are hoping to influence at Hancock County’s four public school districts. On Monday, July 12, some parents are holding a rally calling on the Greenfield-Central School Board to “un-mask” schools by starting the school year without any mask requirements or other cautionary policies. Petitions also have circulated throughout each of the county’s four school districts, signed by parents who want things to go back to normal.

The four petitions currently circulating weren’t created independently: They have identical language and a common origin. The petitions all come from a Facebook group called Hancock County Indiana Patriots.

The Facebook page is really two pages — a public page followed by about 150 people, and a private group with over 700 members. The petitions originated from discussions among members in the private group. Hancock County Indiana Patriots has been running a number of other petitions as well, including one seeking to ban “critical race theory” in county schools; and one asking the county to become a “2nd amendment sanctuary” that will refuse to enforce state and federal gun laws.

Bryan Schrank, one of the moderators of the Hancock County Indiana Patriots Facebook page, said the group decided to launch the petitions after parents from each of the county school districts posted about wanting to see restrictions end at schools.

Schrank said the group is focused on “hot-button” issues for conservatives and will be getting more involved with COVID-19 policy in the future.

“We will be launching an effort to see vaccine passports banned in our county, along with protecting those employed in the county from forced COVID-19 vaccinations at their work,” Schrank said.

Mt. Vernon and Southern Hancock schools have released plans stating that they will start their school years without mandatory masks, social distancing or contact tracing. Eastern Hancock released a similar policy Wednesday, July 7. It also includes a requirement that parents choose at the beginning of the year whether they want their students to remain at school if they are identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive for the virus. The EH school board will vote on the policy at its next meeting, also on Monday. Greenfield-Central administrators also are working on their plan.

Social media connections

Schrank said the Hancock County Patriots Indiana group is independent of any state or national organization.

“This is a grassroots movement that is looking to get conservatives more involved in Hancock County politics. Everything we’ve done has been organic,” he said.

Schrank also said it was inspired by local meetings of a group opposed to vaccination requirements, Stand for Health Freedom. One of the group’s other moderators, Chrissy Scott, is employed by Stand for Health Freedom.

Leah Wilson, the executive director of Stand for Health Freedom, confirmed that Scott works for the organization as part of its social media team.

Stand for Health Freedom, a registered nonprofit, is dedicated to spreading the message that vaccines should not be required in any context. It was founded in 2019, and its founders are Wilson, the owner of a natural health center; Sayer Ji, who owns multiple companies in the natural health sphere, and Joel Bohemier, a board member of both of their companies.

Through the nonprofit, Wilson and her co-founders provide tools that can be mobilized against vaccination requirements at any level.

“The grassroots campaigns that SHF spearheads are scalable, customizable and can be directed toward virtually anyone — from a state senator or supreme court justice, all the way up to the president of the United States,” the organization’s website says.

Wilson said she thinks experts have not adequately considered the risks that COVID-19 vaccination could pose for children, compared to the relatively low risk of death or serious illness posed to young people.

“It’s this risk assessment that has to be done,” Wilson says.