Mask policy changes? Area schools vigilantly monitor COVID-19 spike

Among the Ohioans closely watching spiking coronavirus variant case numbers are local school leaders overseeing the re-opening of classes in the coming days as students return from holiday break.

The recent climb in COVID-19 totals — including hospitalizations — prompted Ohio’s governor and hospital leaders late last week to plead for local school systems to return to mandatory student masking.

And while some area districts may do so, memories are still fresh from a contentious fall that saw some area school board meetings – and others nationally – ignite into flashpoints of protests by some school parents who vociferously opposed mandatory masking of their children.

COVID-19 numbers fell in the fall but the spread of the omicron variant — which medical experts say is many times more contagious but overall less harmful to most — may renew conflicts between some parents and schools where students may again be ordered to wear masks.

In Ohio, the leaders of the state’s 613 public school systems have the final say on preventive measures to the pandemic regardless of urgings of Gov. Mike DeWine and some medical leaders.

Area superintendents said they are upping their vigilance while adopting a wait-and-see approach depending on infection rates that may appear in the coming days or weeks.

“The (Fairfield) district is asking all students and staff members to strongly consider DeWine’s request to wear a facial covering during this current wave of increased cases and spread,” said Billy Smith, superintendent of the 10,000-student school system.

“Because many of our students and staff members have gathered with family and friends during the winter break … (we) will continue to strongly recommend facial coverings for all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status,” Smith said.

The stakes are once again high as the pandemic nears its two-year anniversary in March of the American onset of the virus.

And from experience gained since 2020 school officials have a couple of previously employed countermeasures at hand should they decide to do so.

One is to alter the school calendar and delay the start of the winter semester, allowing for more time to see if the December holidays were in fact a super-spreader event multiplying the number of positive test cases among students and staff.

Another strategy — should infection rates warrant — is shutting down all classes and ordering all students into remote learning, which was enacted locally and nationally in the initial onslaught of the virus in spring of 2020.

Or some districts have publicly stated mandatory masking could be ordered on a school building-by-building basis as warranted by any increase in COVID-19 cases among students or staff.

But area school officials declined at this point to address specifically what they will do if anything, citing the still fluid nature of this latest uptick of cases.

They are waiting and watching closely what impact — if any — the return of tens of thousands of local students and staffers to school may have on infection rates.

But some are reiterating their adamant recommendation to mask up.

Southwest Ohio’s largest suburban school system — the 17,000-student Lakota Schools — are scheduled to resume live classes — and the district’s “strongly recommend” mask policy — for Monday’s semester start.

“While we continue to see relatively low spread among our students, about 40% of our cases point to spread within families. We will continue to closely monitor the number of positive cases when classes resume … and will adjust our protocols accordingly,” said Betsy Fuller, spokeswoman for Lakota.

“If we should see a high number of cases in a school, we may choose to re-instate masks temporarily at that school, or even within a grade level,” Fuller said.

Jeff Staggs, superintendent for Madison Schools, said when classes resume there on Wednesday the district will continue its vigilance in monitoring infection rates but currently plans no change of its recommended mask policy.

“We will not have mandatory masks for students or staff. We will monitor our numbers as always and do what is best for the students and staff,” Staggs said.

Kings Schools will do the same, said spokeswoman Dawn Gould, who added “we are continuing to monitor the impact of the latest variant.”

Kings is currently requiring masks for students in pre-kindergarten to 6th grade through Jan. 18.

But Edgewood school parent Molly Yeager said she is worried about resumption of classes this week.

“I have real concerns sending my kids back,” said Yeager. “Both my school aged children are fully vaccinated and will remained masked — but we are upgrading masks to help prevent the likelihood of them bringing illness back to their younger sibling or my high-risk parents that help watch them.”

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