Questions, confusion on COVID masks linger for Butler County students as school start nears

As the start of the new school year approaches next month, area school officials are forced to decide on their policies as to whether students will have to wear masks. Adding to some confusion are new state laws and a pending CDC decision approving of coronavirus vaccines and whether those under age of 12 will be allowed to be immunized. (File Photo\Journal-News)
As the start of the new school year approaches next month, area school officials are forced to decide on their policies as to whether students will have to wear masks. Adding to some confusion are new state laws and a pending CDC decision approving of coronavirus vaccines and whether those under age of 12 will be allowed to be immunized. (File Photo\Journal-News)

As the opening of a new school year grows closer, so too does the time for a final, key health decision on whether area schools will require students to wear masks to help ward off the coronavirus and its growing prevalence of variants.

A major variable still to be decided by many schools on a national and local level is whether vaccinated students will be exempted from any mask requirement and what restrictions – if any – might unvaccinated students face when K-12 classes open for the 2021-2022 school year next month.

Adding to the confusion is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) pending approval of coronavirus vaccines beyond their “emergency use authorization” status, which has been in place for the three available vaccines in America since early 2021.

Preble County Health Commissioner Erik Balster said “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.”

ExploreNew Ohio law says schools can’t follow current CDC guidance

Coronavirus vaccines have so far only been authorized by emergency use for those 12 years and older.

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

ExploreVaccine incentives: Miami students offered hockey tickets, laptops, free tuition and more

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.

The added language says Ohio public schools and colleges cannot require any vaccine that hasn’t received full Food and Drug Administration approval.

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 latest CDC recommendations to schools call for unvaccinated people to continue to wear masks indoors and advises 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.

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 the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) has not released updated guidance.

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.

Ohio Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Bruce Vanderhoff said earlier this week 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.”

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.

HB 244 only requires unvaccinated students not face restrictions different from rules for vaccinated students. The law would not prevent a school from requiring all students to wear masks.

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.

ExploreDelta variant on the rise in Ohio, expected to become dominant form of COVID, health experts say

The stance of some area school districts at this date includes a key word: “optional.”

The 16,800-student Lakota Schools, the largest district in Butler County and ninth largest in Ohio, will allow the option for school families and students to choose whether they wear masks while attending in-person classes.

“After careful consideration of the Ohio Department of Health’s recommendations and consulting with medical experts at UC Health and Cincinnati Children’s, masks and facial coverings will be optional for students and staff at Lakota Local Schools this fall,” said Lakota Superintendent Matt Miller in a released statement after a recent school board meeting.

“While we are leaving the decision on whether or not to wear face coverings to our families and staff, I want to remind you that the Ohio Department of Health recommends those who are not vaccinated should consider wearing a mask or face covering indoors,” said Miller.

Officials at the 10,000-student Fairfield Schools recently posted a similar directive on its district website.

“We want to clear up any confusion over what the Fairfield City School District’s stance is on masks/facial coverings for the 2021-2022 school year,” wrote officials.

“The Ohio Department of Health is currently asking individuals who have not been vaccinated to consider wearing a mask/facial covering. However, at this time, the Fairfield City School District IS NOT requiring masks/facial coverings for the 2021-2022 school year. We are leaving this decision up to each person or their parents/guardians.”

But both Lakota, Fairfield and other area district officials make it clear any decision may be changed later to adhere to state or local health guidelines regarding the coronavirus and its variants.

“Please understand that with all things during this pandemic, this information/guidance is subject to change,” said Fairfield officials.

Both public and private school officials recommend school families and students refer to their local school system’s - and school building’s - websites for more information on masks, vaccine or other coronavirus preventive requirements prior to classes beginning throughout August.