CENTERBURG — Centerburg Local Schools school board reversed the district’s indoor mask mandate on Monday after listening to public comments for 90 minutes.
The board voted 3-2 to make masks optional, which had been the district’s policy at the start of the school year approximately a month ago. The district’s mask mandate took effect Sept. 7.
The board did not state when the mask-optional policy would take effect during the public meeting but told Knox Pages following the meeting the policy would start on Tuesday, Sept. 14.
Students are required to wear masks on school buses, which is a federal order.
The district has had 51 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 289 students quarantined since the start of the school year, board president Roger Clark said Monday.
"Our absentee rate before the mask mandate was 21%, and now it's 14%," Clark said.
Clark said the aforementioned percentages include all absences, not only those related to COVID-19 illness or quarantine, which means the absence rate due to COVID-19 is likely lower. Several parents present at Monday's meeting said they have kept their students at home the past week to avoid the mask mandate.
Before the vote and following public discussion, the board discussed among itself whether to set specific metrics (percent of students in quarantine, positive cases) for when to take away/reinstate a mask mandate.
However, the board did not end up voting on any such measure Monday.
The meeting occurred in the auditorium, rather than the usual boardroom location, to accommodate the guests present. At least 40 guests attended Monday’s meeting, and more than 10 spoke — the majority against the mask mandate and a few in favor of the mask mandate.
People who spoke against the mask mandate overwhelmingly voiced beliefs in parent choice on whether students should wear masks.
"It is our responsibility as parents to keep our kids healthy," parent Jessie Whitley said. "That may look different for each family, as we are all different."
Other concerns voiced were parents' desire for more clear communication and transparency from the school board. Some parents and residents said they took issue with the district deciding to mandate masks after district leadership previously said it would only do so when mandated by the state.
At the start of the school year in August, Centerburg superintendent Mike Hebenthal said the district would follow mandates, but when policies were recommended and not mandated, the district would try to follow what the majority of its community wanted.
Brooke Phillips, a Centerburg resident who does not send her children to Centerburg schools, spoke about student mental health when voicing her opposition of the mask mandate and instructed attendees to take a moment of silence for children who have committed suicide.
One student spoke, a high schooler who was in favor of the mask mandate. She said masks did not affect her ability to learn — another common argument among people who spoke in opposition of the mask mandate.
"I've had asthma since 2," she said. "I take medicine daily and I can breathe just fine in my mask and it does not affect my mental health at all."
Those who spoke in favor of the mask mandate commended the board for following the recommendations of Knox Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Ohio Department of Health, entities which strongly urge schools to adopt universal masking to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
"School is the highest-risk situation for my child everyday, so by having his peers masked it protects him," parent Allison Hess said. "And I rely on you guys (the school board) to make decisions to keep my children safe while they're in the building, just as you would protect them from abuse, bullying or anything else."
The board members, superintendent and district principals wore masks at the start of the meeting, with the exception of board member Tracey Myers. When the board voted to remove the mandate, several promptly removed their masks.
"As long as you have the information I think it belongs to you to decide," Myers said. "But understand that may mean several absences because the health department quarantines (your student)."
Some parents stated they would teach their child everyday if needed, while others argued leaving instruction up to parents during quarantine would let some students fall through the cracks.
Hebenthal said Monday, and previously stated in a post explaining the now-removed mask mandate, he has tried to request a change to quarantine procedures to keep students in continuous in-person learning by allowing students identified as close contacts to remain in school if they wear a mask.
Currently, unmasked, unvaccinated students who are identified as close contacts are required to quarantine.