(Editor’s Note – Shortly after this article was released, the South-Western City Schools District changed its policy regarding facial coverings. On Aug. 20, the school district announced that masks will be required for all students, staff, and visitors during school hours for those in grades PreK-6. Masks are strongly recommended for students in grades 7-12. For the latest protocols, visit the district website at swcsd.us.)
By Dedra Cordle
South-Western City School officials say the decision to wear a facial covering will be left up to the individual.
In its back-to-school newsletter released on Aug. 6, the district announced they would no longer require students and staff to wear facial coverings at the start of the 2021-22 school year. Instead, the district will recommend masks be worn to protect themselves and others against COVID-19 but the policy will not be enforced.
District officials say they came to this determination through conversations with public health officials as well as experiences they learned during the last school year and throughout the summer.
They said they will continue to follow layered protocols recommended by public health boards to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19 in their schools.
“We are continuing many of our practices and protocols from last school year, which include but are not limited to physical distancing, hand washing and respiratory etiquette and cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities including ventilation improvements,” wrote Sandra Nekoloff, the district’s executive director of communications, in an email.
She added that the district will also continue to follow the Ohio Department of Health’s quarantine and contact tracing guidelines; recommend but not require (COVID-19) vaccines; make appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities; and follow federal orders on transportation protocols.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is requiring that all students who take public transportation to school wear a facial covering while they are on the bus.
The public reaction to the district’s announcement that it would be a ‘mask-friendly’ district for the start of the 2021-22 school year on Aug. 25 was mixed. For every person who celebrated the decision, there was one who expressed disappointment.
Chandra Fredrick was one of those who were disappointed by the district’s decision not to require masks for its students and staff. On Aug. 9, she came before the board of education at its regular meeting to ask the district to reconsider its choice.
Fredrick said one of her children, a 10-year-old who is going into his fifth grade year, is immunocompromised and she fears for his safety should she send him to school with the current guidelines in place.
She said prior to the revised mask policy announcement, she and her husband had enough confidence in the district’s decision-making process regarding COVID-19 protocols last year that they re-enrolled their three children after nearly a year of home-schooling.
“Because our district did such a great job with COVID precautions last year, we felt comfortable enrolling our kids in school for the fall,” said Fredrick. “But now, you’re throwing away the most important method of protection for our unvaccinated kids by not requiring masks in school.
“We know that masks work. We know the science. You’re an education board, you teach science. We know that masks work. We know masks are the reason that transmission in our schools was so low last year. You can say that you care about all of our kids but your current policy demonstrates the opposite.”
Fredrick said her child wants to go to school, wants to catch up with his friends and wants to get involved in activities. She said she wants to send him to school but is filled with anxiety by the thought of doing so if the district maintains its current policy. She said children who are immunocompromised or disabled should not have to find alternative methods of learning simply because “some parents don’t want their kids to wear a mask.”
Shortly before this article went to press, Governor Mike DeWine urged school districts throughout the state to reconsider their mask policies if they have not mandated its use.
“At the very least,” he wrote on this official Twitter account, “consider requiring masks for the next few weeks when we know the spread level will be very high.”
As of press time, district officials maintain they will begin the school year with its current requirements and protocols in place. They said their policies could change if mandates were to change.
In March, the state legislature passed Senate Bill 22 which allows lawmakers to rescind health orders like the mask mandate via concurrent resolution, which circumvents the governor. It also blocks local health departments from banning mass gatherings or closing schools unless a dangerous communicable disease becomes unusually prevalent.
In July, Franklin County Public Health and Columbus Public Health recommended universal masking policies for all students and staff members in the upcoming 2021-22 school year – even if they are fully vaccinated.
Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.