‘We’re keeping a close eye on it’: Lakota protest continues debate on masking in schools as more students return

Credit: Journal News

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Group gathers in opposition to Lakota mask mandate

Credit: Journal News

Thousands of area students will be wearing masks as more classes start this week in the wake of increasing districts are reversing their previous optional policy while citing the rising number of coronavirus variant cases.

Less than 24 hours after southwest Ohio’s largest suburban school system ordered mandatory masks for all students on Monday, dozens of Lakota school parents protested Tuesday morning outside the district’s headquarters.

ExploreLakota rules masks are mandatory for students, teachers when school begins this week

Lakota’s reversal of its previous optional mask policy for students and teachers was soon followed by Middletown and Talawanda school officials making similar announcements for their district and impacting more than 36,000 area students just starting the new school year.

Warren County’s largest district – Mason Schools – also switched to mandatory masks Monday for some grades.

Some districts, including Hamilton and Fairfield’s combined 20,000 students, are so far maintaining their option mask policies.

The school districts’ new masking orders follow last week’s public urgings of city, county and state health officials calling for mandatory masks in all schools to curtail the recent rising spread of the variant strain, which many doctors have declared is more contagious than the original coronavirus.

“Stand up for your rights and breathe,” shouted Lakota school parent Sarah Webster as about 50 fellow anti-mask protestors applauded in front of the Lakota Board of Education office in Butler County’s Liberty Twp.

The 16,800-student Lakota district, which is the ninth largest in Ohio, begins in-person classes today (8/18) for some students as part of its staggered start of the new school year to better allow students to cope with stresses of a second consecutive school year start under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.

The leader of Middletown Schools’ 6,300 students said the switch to mandatory masks had to happen if students are to learn safely in person.

“We know the majority of our students learn best when they are in a classroom setting and we are determined to keep our buildings fully open for them,” said Middletown Superintendent Marlon Styles Jr.

“Due to the strong recommendations by our medical professionals, the Middletown Board of Education determined it is in the best interest of our students and staff,” said Styles.

Madison Schools Superintendent Jeff Staggs echoed officials from Hamilton and Fairfield schools in saying his district is maintaining an optional policy for now while remaining vigilant.

“We’re keeping a close eye on it,” said Staggs of the levels of coronavirus variant infections.

Area public and private school officials ask school families to check their children’s school district and building websites for updates on masking policies.

The protest outside Lakota’s headquarters mirrored some others in the region and nationally.

Lakota officials said they understand the passions on each side of the masks-in-school debate.

Nationwide, students under 12 years old are currently ineligible to be vaccinated.

Lakota Spokeswoman Betsy Fuller told the Journal-News: “There are certainly very strong feelings on both sides about requiring masks in our schools.”

“This was not an easy decision to make by any means. The bottom line is, we want our students to stay healthy and be able to learn in school. In order to do that, we have to follow the quarantine protocols from the Butler County General Health District. This includes requiring both the COVID-positive student and the close contact to be wearing masks,” said Fuller.

Ohio Representative Jennifer Gross (R-West Chester Twp.) also spoke at the protest and said she backed the parents’ anti-mask stance.

“We believe in local control in Ohio. The school board and the superintendent is who you need to be talking to, so this (demonstration) is the right answer,” Gross said.

She warned the ordering of masking of school children may lead to other government infringements on the rights of parents and others.

“Letting your voice be known to the school board and the superintendent … is the right thing to do,” said Gross.

Lakota recently conducted an online survey of its school families that garnered 6,800 responses with 48% saying they “believe that face coverings should be required for all or some grades.

Moreover, 33% “believe that face coverings should be required for all grades” and “15% believe that face coverings should be required for grades K-6 and optional for grades 7-12.”

Lakota Superintendent said in a released statement: “We want our students to stay in school. We want to limit exposure to COVID-19. We do not want to quarantine close contacts. In order to do this, we need to mask up.”

Lakota school parent Michael Meehan said he backs the district’s move.

“My wife and I have two kids in Lakota and we support the school mask requirement. Masks are just common sense given the current Covid threat, the inability to vaccinate kids under 12 and the low vaccination rate for older kids,” said Meehan.

“While those who are upset are vocal, they don’t speak for all Lakota parents.”

(Photographer Nick Graham contributed to this story)