New COVID variant, safety debates add stress and challenges as school year starts

The school year started at Rosa Parks Elementary School Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021 in Middletown. A $10 million expansion was recently completed at the school housing mostly fourth and fifth grade classrooms, library, science area and multi-use open learning spaces. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF
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The school year started at Rosa Parks Elementary School Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021 in Middletown. A $10 million expansion was recently completed at the school housing mostly fourth and fifth grade classrooms, library, science area and multi-use open learning spaces. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

For the second straight year, area K-12 school families are nervously counting down the days until classes start during a global pandemic while officials calculate whether rising coronavirus cases will force a shift in their mask policies.

When most area public and private school classes open this week, it will be the third school year in a row impacted by the coronavirus since all Ohio K-12 schools were shuttered in March 2020.

This time around, however, it’s the coronavirus’ skyrocketing variant cases – cited by some doctors as more contagious and dangerous for students – that have school officials apprehensive about the start of the 2021-22 school year.

ExploreOhio health officials watch for peak as COVID cases continue to climb

With federal, state and local health departments recommend students and others wear masks while in school whether vaccinated or not, school officials are watching the COVID-19 variant rates closely.

“(Last year), everyone was in the same boat and everything was new to everyone,” so school parents were more uniform in their attitudes, said Fairfield school parent Laura Metzler.

“This school year it’s more like fatigue and people are tired of the unknowns. It’s like everyone is more frustrated this year than last year.”

And adding to the stress are other, unrelated unknowns. There are school board campaigns and elections in November. There are hot-button issues - beyond divisions over whether students should have to wear masks – such as debates over the teaching of Critical Race Theory or similar forms of such education, increasingly criticized locally and nationwide by some school parents.

Some local districts are seeing an unusually high number of school board candidates on the fall ballot, which some attribute to the controversies over masks and Critical Race Theory along with more traditional school issues.

In 17 months since the onset of the global pandemic, the main disrupter of area schools remains the coronavirus.

Complicating the issues for schools is those 12 years and younger are not eligible for vaccinations. And the arguments over vaccinations and mask-wearing extend beyond school grounds.

Recently 103 doctors who live or work in the Mason Schools district, which open classes on Thursday, went public by signing a letter urging the district to abandon its optional mask policy.

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

This week saw a rare combined statement by three health departments that operate in Butler County calling for students to be required to wear masks in school.

ExploreButler County health departments: We recommend mask-wearing in all schools

The Butler County General Health District, the City of Hamilton Health Department and City of Middletown Health Department jointly announced their common stance that students should be in school in person but that everyone in schools should be masked, regardless of vaccination status.

And late last week Forest Hills Schools in eastern Hamilton County announced it would require masks for pre-K through third-grade students but continue to recommend masks for older students.

Earlier in the week, Kentucky’s governor ordered that state’s public schools to go to mandatory masks. Two days later, the Kentucky Board of Education released its own, longer-lasting orders, which exceeded the governor’s 30-day edict.

Flexibility by schools and families is key,–school officials said.

“We will continue to follow the safety protocols, but with all things to do with the pandemic, we must be prepared to change on a dime. It is the reality of the times,” said Gina Gentry-Fletcher, spokeswoman for the 10,000-student Fairfield Schools, which will begin classes Tuesday.

Betsy Fuller, spokeswoman for the 16,800-student Lakota school system, said her district learned much last year under the pandemic and has again marshalled resources to help students and school families going into 2021-22.

“The start of the new school year … will be the third year in a row where we have been serving our students during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Fuller. “The pandemic has put many additional stresses on our families, including financially, and we are thankful that we have resources to try and help.”

Among those are Lakota’s Virtual Learning Option (VLO), which last fall saw more than 4,000 students enrolled to learn entirely from home but his year – as Lakota continues its policy of holding in-person classes – has seen enrollment drop to around 400 students.

Beyond the academics, Lakota will continue to bolster its efforts to help students deal with pandemic and other stressors through its suicide prevention program Hope Squad.

“As we continue to navigate these very trying times with our families, we are bringing forward what we learned last year and coupling them with new programs as well,” said Fuller.