New Ohio law says schools can’t enforce current CDC guidance

Credit: DaytonDailyNews


Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Law forbids separate approaches for vaccinated and unvaccinated students

A new Ohio law appears to prohibit K-12 public schools from enforcing the most recent CDC guidance on mask-wearing amid lingering COVID-19 concerns.

House Bill 244 — which was introduced as a bill to help military children transition into a new school — was amended hours before its passage by the Ohio legislature on June 28 amid a scramble to pass the state budget the same day.

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The added language says Ohio public schools and colleges cannot require any vaccine that hasn’t received full Food and Drug Administration approval. The COVID-19 vaccines fit that description, as they are being administered under an “emergency use authorization.”

But the amended bill also says schools can’t require unvaccinated people to “engage in … precautions that differ from the precautions of an individual who has received such a vaccine.”

The Stebbins High School marching Band took to the field  for the last day of band camp in July 2020. All the band members and staff all practiced social distancing and wore mask for the entire week. MARSHALL GORBY/STAFF
The Stebbins High School marching Band took to the field for the last day of band camp in July 2020. All the band members and staff all practiced social distancing and wore mask for the entire week. MARSHALL GORBY/STAFF

Credit: Marshall Gorby

Credit: Marshall Gorby

The latest CDC recommendations to schools call for unvaccinated people to continue to wear masks indoors, and advise that vaccinated people don’t need to.

Sara Clark, chief legal counsel for the Ohio School Boards Association, said Thursday that the law would prohibit schools from having different rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated students.

Preble County Health Commissioner Erik Balster said schools in his county want to know what the rules will be on quarantining when students or staff have close contact with COVID cases. The CDC calls for unvaccinated people to be quarantined in that situation, but House Bill 244 could prevent different treatment on that front, too, and ODH has not released updated guidance.

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The law would appear to mean schools either have to allow COVID-exposed, unvaccinated students to stay in school, or tell students protected via vaccination that they have to stay home for two weeks anyway.

“There are a bunch of things up in the air, and it’s going to be a busy couple of weeks coming up before school starts,” Balster said.

Ohio Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Bruce Vanderhoff said Wednesday that ODH echoes the CDC and is urging unvaccinated people to wear face masks and social distance indoors.

“We were very successful with that here in Ohio in our schools this past winter,” he said. “I think the good experience is there for us to learn from.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed the bill Wednesday, meaning it will go into effect in 90 days, in mid-October. Asked about the provision, DeWine’s office called on the FDA to give COVID-19 vaccines full approval, which would make the issue moot.

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In both the House and Senate, House Bill 244 was passed on straight party lines — all Republicans voting yes, and all Democrats voting no.

As the Dayton Daily News reported this week, some local schools had already decided that masks would be optional for all this fall, while other districts are still weighing their approaches. HB 244 only says that unvaccinated students can’t face restrictions that are different from rules for vaccinated students. The law would not prevent a school from requiring all students to wear masks.

Kettering schools said this week that in the absence of formal mandates from health officials, masks will be optional.

“Per guidance from the CDC, it is recommended that students that are not fully vaccinated should wear a mask while indoors, however, masks will not be required in the Kettering schools,” district spokeswoman Kari Basson said. “Masks will be a parent/guardian choice.”

When a local TV station erroneously reported that Centerville schools had decided to require masks, the district’s Facebook page received hundreds of comments. A few supported the CDC guidance, but most were firmly opposed to any mask requirement.

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Centerville Superintendent Tom Henderson confirmed Thursday that the district is still weighing its safety protocols ahead of the first day of classes Aug. 18.

“We’ve taken the approach to take some time to continue to look at the situation and the numbers,” Henderson said. “With some of the camp (outbreaks) reported here recently, that’s causing some concern, and the information about the variants is concerning as well. … Some would say there is no right answer that’s going to make everybody happy. It’s hard.”

Henderson was referencing a small outbreak at a Boy Scout summer camp in Preble County, and a much larger one at a church camp near Miamisburg, with more than 70 COVID infections.

State health officials say new COVID case numbers, which had been at a 12-month low, are starting to rise again as the Delta variant surges nationwide. Vanderhoff said Delta poses greater risks to younger people than the original COVID strain.

Currently, COVID vaccines are not approved for those under age 12, meaning nearly all students in K-5 elementary schools are unvaccinated.

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