Fredericktown Student Walk-Out

Several Fredericktown students walked out of school Wednesday morning to protest the district-wide mask mandate. 

MOUNT VERNON — One school building — Danville Middle/High School — out of all buildings in Knox County's six school districts has remained with the mask-optional policy it has had in place since the school year began in August.

All of the county's districts began the school year approximately a month ago with mask-optional policies. 

Danville does not require masks district-wide, but Danville Elementary School has a mask mandate. Four school districts require face masks indoors: Centerburg, East KnoxMount Vernon and Fredericktown.

Knox County Career Center has a mask mandate in certain areas of school facilities, notably when physical distancing cannot be maintained.

The areas where masks are required at the Career Center include lunchrooms when not actively eating; hallways; and classrooms, lab rooms and offices when more than three feet of distance cannot be maintained.

Masks remain optional for the Career Center preschool but are highly recommended by the district.

Centerburg and the Career Center are the two most recent districts to change their mask policies, which took effect Tuesday. Masks are required regardless of vaccination status. 

Fredericktown schools began mandating masks indoors for both students and staff the last few days of August but announced Tuesday it would be creating a “District Mask Committee,” which will comprise parents and school staff and be tasked with thinking of ways to create options for students to learn without wearing masks at certain times of the day. 

“It is the goal of this committee to provide unmasked learning opportunities that also follow Knox Public Health guidelines (without being quarantined),” a post on the district website reads.

Parents and staff who are interested in being on the committee can contact Fredericktown superintendent Susan Hayward, according to the website. Those interested must contact Hayward to express interest by Thursday. 

Some Fredericktown students walked out of school Wednesday morning to protest the mask mandate, and parents stood in the Middle/High School parking lot cheering for the children.

The mask mandates in Knox County districts have come after rises in COVID-19 cases and people having to be quarantined after being identified as close contacts. More than 200 people were quarantined in Knox County schools within the first two weeks of the school year.

Centerburg last reported COVID-19 case numbers on Sept. 3. As of then, the district reported 20 active COVID-19 cases total — 17 student cases and 3 staff cases. 

"As of Friday, Sept 3, 21% of the student body of the district were absent," Hebenthal wrote in a post on the district website Monday. "This weekend we were notified of 4 more student diagnosis and 2 more staff diagnosis. We are awaiting quarantine orders from Knox Public Health.

"We are moving staff around in an attempt to continue to have school due to lack of substitute teachers." 

Before the start of the school year, district superintendents said they would likely 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 had defined this plan in their written policies, including Mount Vernon and Danville.

In Hebenthal's post Monday, he also mentioned schools' responsibility for student learning and absences as reasons for the mask policy change.

"HB 166, which was passed in 2019, mandates schools to be responsible for excessive absences," Hebenthal wrote. "Absences are tracked by the state, and the student attendance rate is graded as part of the district’s final grade each year. If a student is excessively absent, the school is mandated to create a 'Personalized Absence Intervention Team' that will create and implement an attendance plan for the chronically absent student.

"Parents are to be invited, but by law do not have to attend. It is solely the responsibility of the school to implement this plan." 

Centerburg schools 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, Hebenthal wrote. According to Hebenthal's Monday post, the district did so "through discussions and direct legal means."

Centerburg schools will not switch to offering online learning this school year.

"Attempting to provide online learning was not successful last year," Hebenthal wrote.

The district tried to use one day a week last year for educators to plan, which is not permitted this year. If a district uses a day for the aforementioned planning, it would be counted as a calamity day and the students would not get credit for state mandated learning time, causing the district to have to make up days at the end of the year.

Additionally, Hebenthal wrote it was too costly for Centerburg to start a separate online school.

"There is no process that would allow students to move back and forth (to online and in-person school) temporarily if quarantined," Hebenthal wrote. "The startup costs and ongoing costs of running a separate online school is not possible for small districts.

"That is why the district has not offered online as we do not feel the small number of students that would enroll would justify the cost to the taxpayer."

Centerburg students and staff must wear masks indoors during the school day, unless they are eating, drinking or participating in physical activity, according to the district website. Students and coaches participating in athletics will follow the same protocols as last year.

“Adults attending athletic events are not required to be masked," Hebenthal stated. "Staff or students attending indoor athletic events are required to wear a mask.

“Medical exemptions must be in writing from a Medical Doctor, Osteopathic Dr, Physician Assistant or Nurse Practitioner. No other medical exemptions are valid in Ohio. There is no religious exemption recognized by Ohio for mask wearing. Religious exemptions are only valid for vaccines.”

The district may consider lifting the mask mandate as conditions change, Hebenthal wrote.

Knox County Career Center Schools has 13 active cases — 10 high school students, two preschool students and one Knox Technical Center student, according to its dashboard last updated Sept. 3.

Knox County Career Center changed its mask policy over the long weekend "in a proactive measure to minimize quarantine numbers and to maintain our goal of keeping students in school and our staff and students healthy," according to a post on the district's website.

KCCC will continue to monitor the number of positive cases at KCCC High School, preschool, and Knox Technical Center to determine when to lift the mask guidelines, according to an additional post from superintendent Kathrine Greenich on the district website.

"Our goal is for every student and staff member to feel safe and to be able to attend school in person," Greenich wrote. "We thank you for respecting our responsibility to accomplish those goals.

"By wearing masks at this time when social distancing can’t be maintained, we can keep each other healthy and allow everyone to continue taking advantage of the opportunities here at KCCC."

This week, Knox County recorded the highest number of active COVID-19 cases it has had throughout the pandemic. 

The county had 578 active cases on Tuesday, according to Knox Public Health, up from 484 on Friday and 297 a week ago. Knox County’s previous record for active cases was 392, set Nov. 30, 2020. Six county residents died from COVID-19 in August.

COVID-19 cases among Knox County residents under the age of 18 in August hit the largest monthly total for that age group since the pandemic began.

As of Tuesday, KPH recorded 125 confirmed cases in August among residents under the age of 18.

High school and middle school students accounted for 73% of the youth cases in August, according to KPH, while 16% of the cases were among elementary students. Children under the age of five accounted for 11% of the new cases, including three cases under the age of one.

The latest case counts in Knox County school districts:

East Knox had four active cases among students and staff — all in the elementary school, as of its dashboard last updated Sept. 6

Mount Vernon had 53 active student cases and eight active staff cases, according to its dashboard last updated Sept. 7.

Fredericktown had 10 active cases — 9 student cases and one staff case — as of Sept. 7. The district also had 51 students in quarantine as of Sept. 7.

Danville had 2% of its pre-kindergarten through sixth grade students out due to COVID-19, and a total PK-6 absence rate of 9%, as of Sept. 7. Danville's other building that does not have a mask-mandate, for seventh through 12th grade students, has 7% of students out due to COVID-19, with a total absence rate of 13%.

Centerburg last reported COVID-19 case numbers on Sept. 3. As of then, the district reported 20 active COVID-19 cases total — 17 student cases and 3 staff cases. Hebenthal wrote Monday the district had been notified of four additional student cases and two additional staff cases during the weekend.

Knox County Career Center Schools has 13 active cases — 10 high school students, two preschool students and one Knox Technical Center student, according to its dashboard last updated Sept. 3.

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Emma Davis is a 2021 graduate of the University of Richmond, from which she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and leadership studies. Emma reports for Knox Pages and Ashland Source through Report for America.

Emma Davis is a 2021 graduate of the University of Richmond, from which she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and leadership studies. Emma reports for Knox Pages and Ashland Source through Report for America.