MOUNT VERNON -- All of Knox County’s school districts have or will in the coming days return to optional mask policies.
Masks are still required on school buses under a federal mandate.
The districts each began the 2021-22 school year with mask-optional policies, but most switched to mask mandates at varying times corresponding with district spikes in COVID-19 cases and quarantines.
Centerburg was the first to reverse its mandate in September. Mount Vernon, Fredericktown, East Knox and Knox County Career Center have followed suit within the last few days.
However, two school buildings in the county — Danville Elementary School and Wiggin Street Elementary School — will have mask mandates at least until the beginning of November.
Danville Local Schools is the only district that never had a district-wide mask mandate, but masks are required for the elementary school, which has been the case since the end of August. The mask mandate at the elementary school will be in place until Nov. 8, at which time masks will become optional, superintendent Jason Snively wrote in an email to Knox Pages.
“The preliminary plan is if there becomes 7% or more absence rate due to COVID after that the elementary will return to mandated masking for 10 days,” Snively wrote.
“The staff at that building found that anything greater than that becomes overwhelming to provide a quality education for all students at that age.”
Masks remain optional for the middle/high school, and an absence rate of 20% or more for grades 7-12 would likely result in mandatory masking, Snively wrote.
While Mount Vernon will move to a district mask-optional policy, masks are still required at Wiggin Street Elementary due to a Gambier Village ordinance requiring masks indoors in the village, which had been enacted before the start of the school year. Gambier Village Council extended the ordinance until Nov. 1 during its latest October meeting.
Centerburg and East Knox’s mask policy changes came following school board votes, whereas Mount Vernon, Fredericktown and Knox County Career Center made the call administratively, with input from board members, superintendents said.
Mount Vernon and Fredericktown announced a return to mask optional policies on Friday. The optional policy took effect for Fredericktown students Oct. 19, and the policy will take effect in Mount Vernon on Oct. 20. Knox County Career Center announced its policy change Oct. 18, and it took effect Oct. 19.
“If we didn’t move now, then when,” Mount Vernon superintendent Bill Seder said, referring to the declining case and quarantine numbers for students and staff in the past three weeks.
The past three week average for new Covid-19 cases for Mount Vernon schools was 11 per week, whereas the district had been averaging close to 30 cases per week during the period right before it implemented a mask mandate, Seder said. Mount Vernon is the largest district in the county with more than 3,800 students.
“We know (cases) are going to rise perhaps just a little bit but hopefully not to any level that we can’t mitigate it,” Seder said. “And, we need to keep kids in school, so that was a big factor.”
Seder, as well as other superintendents who made mask policy changes in the past few days, said the modified quarantine procedures released by Knox Public Health Friday were a key factor in the shift to a mask-optional policy.
The procedures allow students to continue to attend school in person after COVID-19 exposure, if they remain symptom-free and wear masks indoors or when unable to physically distance from others.
Along with low case numbers and low student-to-student transmission outside family members, the quarantine modification was a factor that led to Fredericktown’s decision to return to mask-optional, superintendent Susan Hayward said.
“I think the Knox Public Health proposal on Friday had an impact as well with the modified quarantine, because we started out the school year with many quarantines and now it allows us to keep our students in school.”
Mount Vernon, Fredericktown and the Career Center will continue to monitor case and quarantine numbers to assess whether a return to a mask mandate would be needed at any time, although there are no specific metrics that would automatically warrant a return, the superintendents said.
The county school districts have generally followed one another in terms of mask and COVID-19-related policy decisions.
“We want to be together, united in this,” Seder said, referring to the districts' recent policy changes.