Mask divide: As coronavirus variant spikes, so does debate about schools in Butler County

The divide between those who want more mask-wearing to protect soon-to-open schools and those who want personal choice materialized down a center aisle splitting the audience of last week’s crowded Lakota school board meeting.

More than 50 people packed into the early Thursday morning board meeting with roughly one half sitting on one side wearing masks across from those without them.

ExploreDozens attend Lakota school board meeting to debate mask mandates: What they said

And both groups then intently watched the governing board of the 16,800-student Lakota school system as it struggles with the increasingly contentious issue of whether schools in southwest Ohio’s largest suburban district should mandate masks as a spreading variant of coronavirus spikes upward.

Public schools aren’t facing this key question alone.

Locally and across the state and nation, a confluence of developing events on the pandemic front have again re-ignited the debate between personal freedoms and personal health.

Last week apopular Miami University bar and small concert venue Brick Street announced only patrons who can produce documentation of coronavirus vaccination could enter.

Then, a group of 103 physicians who either work or live in the Mason school system sent a letter to district officials last week urging them to reverse their current policy of optional masks for students and instead make mandatory the wearing of the protective face coverings.

ExploreLetter signed by 103 doctors calls for Mason Schools to reverse stance on masks

And minutes before Lakota’s latest school board meeting, Miami University announced it had changed its previous optional mask policy in the wake of recent higher numbers of positive cases of the coronavirus – fueled by the rapid spread of its more contagious variant. When classes begin later this month all students and staff will have to wear masks.

ExploreMiami announces masks will be required indoors in almost all circumstances

The Lakota board meeting reflected the contentiousness of the mask issue. Some school parents became tearful as they told of their children suffering last school year from having to wear masks.

Others from across the aisle spoke emotionally of their children forced into precautionary quarantines at home, missing school days and participation in team sports due to being within possible infection distances from a classmate who tested positive.

“There is a tremendous passion and a tremendous concern for the safety of our students,” said Lakota board member Lynda O’Connor.

But, O’Connor added, “it’s very clear there is not an ideal solution for each side.”

Lakota school parent Kristi Ertel, who backs optional masking, attended the board meeting and said afterward: “I stand in favor of parental choice to make the best decision I need to on behalf of my two children at Lakota schools. I understand my child’s social emotional learning needs. I know their health history so I can effectively advocate for them.”

“I cannot, however, advocate on behalf of each parent in this room, because I do not know their child’s unique needs and what is best for their families. That is precisely why this decision to mask in schools should be left for each family to decide,” said Ertel.

But an unmasked student may spread the virus more readily inside a school, said other parents who lobbied the board to make the face coverings mandatory.

“Universal masking is the only way to keep (student) quarantines down,” said Jessica Williams, who added her elementary grade child suffered depression while learning via Lakota’s VLO (Virtual Learning Option) at home.

Her voice quivered with emotion as she told the board her child’s grades dropped last school year.

“You guys did such a good job of keeping the kids safe with protocols and masking … and when we had to make that decision (to return the child to live classroom learning) we knew it was going to be okay,” said Williams.

Lakota and Mason aren’t alone as the debate rages.

Like most other area schools, Edgewood Schools also currently has an optional mask policy as it approaches the start of its school year later this month.

James Ray said he was disappointed by what he described as a lack of clarity from Edgewood school officials on student masking.

Ray echoed the position of some other parents in other districts in saying districts should follow the CDC and state health officials’ recommendations to require masking of all students, especially given that students under 12 years old are not eligible for vaccinations against the coronavirus.

“We had to take steps to look into other school districts that are actually putting the safety of the children first by following CDC and Ohio Board of Health recommendations and instituting a mask policy,” said Ray.

Lakota board member Julie Shaffer said “there is no one good answer” that will satisfy both sides of the debate.

“It’s certainly a challenging time and we appreciate everyone’s emotions associated with that (and) there are certainly strong opinions,” said Shaffer. But, she said “we’re trying to do what’s right for students.”

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