Ohio communities split over masks ahead of new school year

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Health officials in Ohio are calling for masks to be worn for the upcoming school year due to the resurgence of COVID-19.

What you need to know

  • Districts announce their mask policies for the new school year
  • State officials recommend that unvaccinated students wear masks
  • Experts explain the new mask guidance as a reaction to the delta variant

School districts in the state are divided on whether or not masking is required, although an increasing number of mask requirements are heralding in response to the spread of the Delta variant.

Dr. Mike Bigham, chief quality officer and pediatric intensive care specialist at Akron Children’s Hospital, said he expected more schools to announce mask requirements in the coming weeks, with infection rates still rising rapidly.

Bigham said Ohio counties are grappling with updating their mask guidelines after many announced just weeks ago that masks would be optional.

“We have seen such a change in COVID in our communities that I think even some of those decisions made a month or more ago might not have been the same decisions if they were made today,” he said. “Schools in general are very thoughtful and rethink these previous recommendations.”

Dr. Michael Bigham of Akron Children’s Hospital

With the Dayton and Toledo public school districts announcing universal mask requirements this week, the counties in all major Ohio cities have now adopted mask requirements.

But elsewhere in Ohio, counties make masks optional, including some of the state’s largest counties – South-Western City Schools, the Olentangy Local Schools, and the Lakota Local Schools, among others.

In counties like Dublin City Schools and Hilliard City Schools, officials only require masks for younger grades as students under 12 are not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination.

Vaccine manufacturers are studying the safety of the approved vaccines in studies with large numbers of children, and expanded approval for children under the age of 12 could be in the next four to six weeks, Bigham said.

So far, there have been almost as many cases of COVID-19 among Ohio children in August as there have been in all of July, showing the severity of the current surge, Bigham said. Akron Children’s Hospital has seen an increase in positive COVID tests for three consecutive weeks, and officials fear hospital admissions could increase in the coming weeks, he said.

“We are confident that wearing masks and schools will provide an opportunity for children to return to school and then stay in school. If there are cases of COVID, the masking should prevent the widespread spread of students in school and allow these children to stay in school to optimize and maximize their learning, ”Bigham said.

Ohio Department of Health officials recommend that unvaccinated students wear masks in school.

“If your student is eligible, parents should have this child vaccinated,” said Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, Ohio chief medical officer, on Thursday. “If they choose not to or are not eligible to receive the vaccine, it is best that these students wear a mask to reduce transmission.”

The Delaware Department of Public Health issued a recommendation Thursday recommending universal masking in all indoor spaces, including schools, preventive health director Adam Howard said in an interview.

Howard explained that under the latest state policy, students can avoid quarantines if they wear a mask in school.

While the health department had planned to recommend masks only for vaccinated people, that changed due to the recent surge in infections.

“A child who keeps their distance and wears a mask does not need to be quarantined in a school setting.

Despite the new mask recommendation in Delaware County, Olentangy Schools Superintendent Mark Raiff announced during a school committee meeting Thursday night that masks would remain optional for the county’s 22,000 students.

For schools that don’t make masks universal, Howard said the health department’s message to families is that students continue to wear a mask, especially as the number of cases increases. If infections emerge in Delaware County school communities this fall, the department will be ready to help with contact tracing, he added.

“If there are outbreaks, we will address them in the specific classroom or building,” said Howard. “Your school districts and health district have worked very closely for the past year and a half to ensure that all children are safe, and we will continue to do so so that everyone can attend school in person.”

Bigham said a situation where an unvaccinated student without a mask sits next to an infected student in class is high risk exposure. If students don’t wear masks, schools and health departments will do tough quarantine jobs, he said.

“Masking is the best option for children to get to school and stay in school and avoid the vicious cycle of exposures and quarantines,” Bigham said.

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