MOUNT VERNON -- In the absence of state and federal mask mandates, Knox County school districts have largely based their back-to-school mask policies on resident beliefs rather than the advice of local health officials.
Knox Public Health strongly urges schools to adopt universal masking to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, which is in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Ohio Department of Health.
However, no school district in Knox County will require universal masking to begin the 2021-22 school year.
The county’s six K-12 districts recommend students and staff members wear masks. Students will be required to wear a mask while riding the bus, per a federal order, but when they are in classrooms, the mitigation measure will be optional.
“It didn’t shock me at all that they didn’t adopt (universal masking),” Knox County deputy health commissioner Zach Green said.
Green has worked with local school leaders since the pandemic began to develop safe reopening plans.
“I get where we’re at as a county, with a 40-percent vaccination rate, and you’ve got to address the target audience,” Green said. “But we’ve just got to make sure these kids are going back to school in a safe environment.”
By not following this recommendation, Green believes local children may be put at risk of contracting or spreading the coronavirus when they head back to school this week. Cases continue to surge locally as the delta variant has become the dominant virus strain in Ohio, and students under 12 years of age remain ineligible for the vaccine.
Green presented KPH’s recommendation to all six county superintendents during a meeting Aug. 5, he said. By that point, however, the CDC’s and ODH’s masking guidance had been out for over a week. Green said several districts had already set policies before the Aug. 5 meeting.
“They knew going into it what they were going to do,” Green said.
‘What the community wants’
In the week since, each school district has announced its reopening plan. All six districts are in consensus: they have recommended but will not require mask-wearing in the classroom for the 2021-22 school year, which begins this week.
With classroom mask recommendations rather than mandates, school districts find themselves in a different legal landscape this year — one in which they can make the call about mask-wearing.
District superintendents said their districts will not mandate masks themselves. They will leave mandates up to public health and the government.
Fredericktown superintendent Susan Hayward said her district’s decision to not require mask-wearing came down to strictly following the law.
“Based on the fact that the state, the Ohio Department of Health as well as the Ohio Department of Education, decided to not mandate that, we did not mandate that,” Hayward said.
East Knox superintendent Steve Larcomb said the district’s 2021-22 policy is in line with the district’s policies since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in that it aligns with mandates not recommendations.
“We are not out of complete lock step with Knox Public Health,” Larcomb said. “It’s their recommendation. We appreciate their recommendations; we take them into consideration and treat them very seriously.
“But, we still ultimately did what we’ve done from the beginning, and that’s follow the law.”
Similar to Larcomb, Centerburg superintendent Mike Hebenthal said his district has and will continue to follow mandates, but when policies are recommended and not mandated, the district tries to follow what the majority of its community wants.
“We do everything the law requires, and what the law doesn’t require, our school board tries to figure out what the community wants and that’s what we try to do,” Hebenthal said.
Regarding the district’s mask-optional policy for the upcoming school year, Hebenthal said he believes it is what the majority of the community wants.
When asked how the district determined this majority desire, Hebenthal said the community is small, and the school board is in continuous contact with residents through daily life, such as going grocery shopping or attending sporting events. Hebenthal also said the district considers the emails it receives from residents who wish to voice their opinions, but no formal polling has been conducted.
“I know people have their opinions both ways,” Hebenthal said. “I have my opinion, but my opinion is not what is going to be the directive of the school district.”
The directives of Centerburg Local Schools, as well as other Knox County districts, are solely in local control at this time.
“There’s an awful lot of recommendations that are being presented at all levels, but nobody’s taken the responsibility to mandate it, and then they drop it on the school districts to say ‘now you do the mandating,’” Hebenthal said. “I find that a little bit frustrating and maybe even somewhat cowardice.
“I don’t know what the answer to this is, but if the health professionals feel so strongly the way they have said, then they should put the mandate out. It’s hard for me to follow the instructions of somebody who's not willing to step up and also help take the heat.”
Knox Public Health does not have the authority to mandate school district policies such as universal masking, Green said. House Bill 22, which was signed into law June 23, prohibits local health commissioners from taking such action until there is a confirmed medical diagnosis (for instance, a confirmed COVID-19 outbreak in a school).
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has recommended, but not required, masks in schools and said recently that he does not intend to mandate masks or issue other health orders as a result of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. Even if DeWine were to reintroduce a mask mandate, House Bill 22 would allow lawmakers to potentially block it.
“Individual choice is what we are about at this point in the pandemic because we have the vaccine,” DeWine said in a press conference Aug. 6. “Schools are making choices now. We believe in local education, local schools making decisions. Businesses, hospitals are all making decisions based on the facts.”
Danville superintendent Jason Snively said his district considered other factors aside from COVID-19 virus infection and spread when creating its masking policy.
“We do respect the recommendations of the health department but as a school district that has a lot of other factors involved in meeting the needs of the child, and the whole child, we feel that the guidelines we’ve laid out are what’s best for our local community,” Snively said.
In terms of the other factors involved, Snively said mental health was a main consideration.
“We were looking at the mental stresses of having to deal with masking and just the daily grind of wearing the mask,” Snively said. “We’ve put it on the individuals. We’re not saying we’re against masking or anything, but we want to leave it up to the individuals.”
Snively said the district can make accommodations for students who are uncomfortable in certain scenarios, such as sitting nearby other students while eating.
“As of right now, we’re going to be sitting in the cafeteria as one, and if there are students who don’t feel comfortable doing that, then we will make accommodations for them to eat in a larger room or another room that is maybe spread out more so they don’t have to be sitting close to each other,” Snively said.
It will be up to the student or student’s guardian to request such accommodations, he said.
Snively thinks it is up to each person to determine the health risks they are willing to take, he said.
“In the past, I’ll be honest with you, it was kind of the fear of the unknown that we were all operating with, why we took the recommendations in local communities,” Snively said. “But for the most part, not everybody, but they feel like they will be able to deal with the consequences that may come along, that we are willing to accept for now if we don’t follow the recommendations.”
Mount Vernon superintendent William Seder said Mount Vernon City Schools also took the stance that it should be up to individual parents and guardians to decide what health risks they are willing to have their children take.
This individualized approach also applies to the responsibility of ensuring continuous in-person learning during the school year.
When asked how he squares the goal to have students in continuous in-person learning with a mask optional policy that leaves more students open to being quarantined, Seder said the district’s focus has been on making sure parents are informed about potential consequences.
Then, parents can decide, knowing and accepting the risks that come with their decision, he said.
“If you don’t want your child to even have any chance of being quarantined, wear a mask,” Seder said.
Ultimately, Seder said the district has prioritized parent choice.
“If we want to play the semantics with the slight difference of whether we mandate it or not, I mean if that’s where we’re at, I’m not sure that that’s fair or not; the fact of the matter is we’re encouraging it,” Seder said. “We’re welcoming it. We’re just not mandating it and therein lies the difference.”
Green said he proposed schools mandate masks for students under 12 years of age, as they are not yet eligible for the vaccine, during the Aug. 5 meeting. Seder said MVCS considered it but ultimately decided against it.
“We did have an option that we considered relative to potentially mandating it, if that’s the right word, at the K-5 level,” Seder said. “But then all the sudden you get into a district that’s quite divided. You get teachers that are kind of divided, some have to wear to wear, some don’t have to wear. You get parents who will say ‘well these folks don’t have to and these folks do.’”
Superintendent of Knox County Career Center Schools Kathrine Greenich said her district’s policy intentionally aligns with the other county districts, as KCCCS students come from various districts.
“Once I realized all the other schools were not going to go with the mask mandate and my board was supportive of not going with it, we just decided to start the school year without it,” Greenich said.
“(The districts) can make different decisions, but we try to stick together.”
When the Knox County Superintendents met with KPH officials on Aug. 5 to discuss COVID-19 protocols, Greenich said the superintendents raised the question, “If we start out with masks, what is our goal to get out of them?”
Greenich said no one could answer this question. The districts did not collectively come up with a mask policy at the August meeting, as each superintendent had to consult their respective boards.
“In conversation with superintendents and KPH, (KCCCS) felt like if we could start without with masks, we could see how it goes,” Greenich said. “We have things in place that if it doesn’t go well, we see too many quarantining, we see too many kids missing school, then we will implement the mask mandates.”
Most of the district superintendents said they would implement universal masking if absentee rates because of COVID-19 infection or quarantine reach a weekly average of 20% or greater in any building. However, only a few of the districts have defined this plan in their written policies, including Mount Vernon and Danville.
East Knox Local Schools’ policy states a full-time mask requirement may be reinstated across all schools if average student attendance rates fall below 85% for five or more consecutive school days, or if otherwise mandated.
Overall, based on published policies and conversations with superintendents, a 20-25% absentee rate because of COVID-19 will likely result in Knox County districts implementing mask mandates.
In terms of other school policies, all districts plan to enforce three- to six-foot social distancing indoors – a recommendation from KPH and other public health authorities – and some are planning to keep modified lunch and hallway transition schedules, which were introduced last year in an effort to reduce transmission.
All districts will require students and staff to quarantine if they test positive for or are exposed to COVID-19, unless vaccinated or if certain prevention measures (i.e. masking, physical distancing) are in place, which is required by Ohio Revised Code.
The ODH has provided further guidelines for quarantine after exposure in K-12 classroom settings.
For example, unvaccinated students who wear a mask consistently and are exposed to the virus do not have to be quarantined (unlike last year when quarantining was required regardless of mask wearing), but these students will be advised to wear a mask while indoors either for 14 days or until they receive a negative viral (PCR or antigen) test. If a vaccinated student is exposed to the COVID-19 virus, they will not be required to quarantine, but are also advised to wear a mask indoors following exposure.
Mount Vernon City Schools is the only district offering online learning during the 2021-22 school year.
Fredericktown, Centerburg, East Knox, Danville and Knox County Career Center will not be offering a virtual option.
How Knox County districts compare to others in Ohio
While all six Knox County school districts plan to make masks optional at all grade levels to begin the academic year, a glance at the statewide picture reflects a more diverse set of approaches.
The public school districts in many of Ohio’s biggest cities – including Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Akron and Toledo – are requiring all staff and students to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.
Districts in mid-sized cities and rural areas vary widely. Delaware City Schools is requiring all students to wear a mask indoors and in crowded areas, regardless of vaccination status. The same goes for Marion City Schools, Wooster City Schools and Athens City Schools.
Westerville City Schools is requiring universal masking for students and staff. If cases decline in Delaware County and eventually dip below the CDC’s high-incidence threshold, the district has said it would consider lifting the mask requirement for high school students – although masks will remain mandatory for Pre-K through eighth-grade students until a vaccine is available for children under 12.
Many districts are similar to those in Knox County, however, and will begin the school year recommending – but not requiring – masks at any level.
Districts in this category include Newark City Schools, New Albany-Plain Local Schools, Marysville Exempted Village School District, Lancaster City Schools, Mansfield City Schools, Coshocton City Schools and Ashland City Schools.
Knox County is not the only county where most, if not all, school districts are ignoring pleas from their local health department to enforce universal masking. Butler County, in southwest Ohio, is seeing a similar situation, with all 11 districts making masks optional. In northeast Ohio’s Stark County, two of the 17 districts have planned for universal masking.
Green, Knox County’s deputy health commissioner, worries that side-stepping this guidance will place students and staff at higher risk for infection. He said last year, when the state required all students and staff to be masked (and other mitigation measures were enforced), the infection rate in local K-12 districts was “extremely low.”
Mount Vernon City Schools recorded 137 confirmed student cases (3.59% of the study body) and 69 confirmed staff cases (12.75% of the workforce) last school year, according to its website. Knox County Career Center Schools had 40 positive cases among high school students last year – with the highest total at one time being four cases, Greenich said.
Fredericktown Local Schools saw 29 confirmed student COVID-19 cases last year (staff numbers were unavailable), Hayward said. Centerburg Local Schools recorded 28 student cases and 13 staff cases, Hebenthal said, and Snively said Danville Local Schools had 27 total cases. East Knox Local Schools recorded 20 total cases (10 staff members and five students) in 2020-21, according to its website.
With masks now optional, the state’s quarantine policy softened, cases soaring, and most children unvaccinated (less than 10 percent of Knox County’s 19-and-under population is at least partially vaccinated, according to the ODH), Green fears outbreaks could occur within the school setting.
“K-5 students aren’t even eligible for the vaccine,” Green said. “You take that population in itself, with one of the tools (universal masking) out of the equation, and this can get out of control quickly.”
This could lead to more absences and interruptions to in-person learning, Green said, which could negatively impact students.
“When you think about sustaining kids in classrooms, which is absolutely imperative in more ways than I can even probably go down – the accountability, the structure, the behavioral health piece alone, outside the world of COVID — it is imperative that these kids stay in school,” Green said during a Facebook Live on Aug. 9.
“When you have a positive confirmed case in the classroom and facial coverings are non-existent, at least on a consistent basis, quarantine orders have been implemented for those close contacts. So what does that mean? Now we’re taking those kids back out of the classroom for that quarantine period.”
Aside from Mount Vernon City Schools, which began last year in the “hybrid” learning model before switching to the “traditional” model to begin the second quarter, all of Knox County’s schools conducted in-person learning throughout 2020-21.
This was made possible, Green said, through mitigation measures that kept case counts low. Now, Green worries in-person learning may be put in jeopardy as districts do away with universal masking.
“I sit back and I look at it like, ‘If everyone is wearing a facial covering, 90 percent of these issues go by the wayside,’” Green said.
Some students have already started school, including Danville students, who began the school year today, and 10th and 11th graders at Knox County Career Center Schools. Others will begin in the coming days: Centerburg and Fredericktown on Aug. 18; all Knox County Career Center students and East Knox on Aug. 17; and Mount Vernon on Aug. 19.