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Masks Or Masquerade? Parents Who Want Masks In Schools Push Back On Opponents

Masked student Worthington Kilbourne March 2021 - Konik.JPG
Dan Konik
Statehouse News Bureau
Masked students sit in a classroom at Worthington Kilbourne High School near Columbus in March 2021.

Many schools that started the year not requiring masks have changed their policies due to viral spread during the first few days in session.

Last spring, teachers were prioritized for vaccinations and there was a statewide indoor mask mandate in place, which meant masks in schools. So, when school ended and summer started, it appeared COVID was under control. Now, case numbers are as high as they were during last winter’s surge, and kids and school workers are coming back into those buildings. And while there’s been a lot of attention on angry parents who oppose mask mandates in schools, there are many who say they’re frustrated and that the numbers show masks are needed.

Back to school has been rough for some, especially after a year of occasional shutdowns, hybrid classes, and virtual learning. Athens City Schools Superintendent Tom Gibbs says the district only had 18 – the bare minimum of bus drivers to cover 90 square miles – to start the year.

“And then we just had a series of COVID-related instances. We now have five drivers that have tested positive for COVID and have a sixth who was identified as a close contact, and it's required to. So when you only have 18 and you're down that many, it makes it difficult to provide transportation for students. And given that we're a partly rural district, we cover about 90 sq. Mi. Not having enough buses to get students to and from school makes it very difficult to have schools open, Gibbs says.

Tom Gibbs Athens City Schools Superintendent
Jo Ingles
Tom Gibbs, superintendent of Athens City School District

Because state law says school can’t be open if there’s no busing available, Gibbs had to close schools for a week. The Lebanon City School District and Fairfield Local School, both in Southwest Ohio, also recently closed. Others, like Sandusky City Schools and Licking Valley High School in central Ohio, have moved students online. Kids under 12 can’t get COVID shots. And only about a third of those 12-18 have been vaccinated.

Some districts have changed their mask policies since the beginning of the school year. But Gov. Mike DeWine isn’t changing his mind about a statewide mask requirement.

“There’s not the appetite in this state today for that kind of a mandate. We did it last year for schools and it worked very, very well. But there’s not the appetite in this state to do it. And I do not have the ability to do that," DeWine told reporters.

Under a new law, if DeWine implements a mask mandate, Republicans who dominate the legislature could, and likely would, hold an immediate vote to shut it down.

Sarah Higgiston, Tipp City parent
Jo Ingles
Sarah Higgiston, Tipp City parent

The leaves some parents, like Sarah Higgiston of New Albany, pleading with their child’s school districts to implement mask policies.

“We have a board of education with no health or medical professionals on it making these decisions. And they're not deferring to the experts. They're saying trust us. And a lot of doctors are saying they feel like their children are in an experiment and the experiment is failing, and it's being run by people who aren't trained to run an experiment and aren't qualified to run an experiment," Higgiston says.

Carrie Arblaster, Tipp. City parent
Jo Ingles
Carrie Arblaster, Tipp City parent

In Southwestern Ohio, where the virus has been hitting hard, Carrie Arblaster says her medically fragile 12-year-old son recently contracted COVID at a Tipp City School.

“Martin has had asthma his whole life. Obviously the first time they thought the school in kindergarten that he was having a panic attack and he was actually having an asthma attack and couldn't breathe. So the poor little guy for the last several years, anytime that he gets usually strep throat, he gets pretty bad with his asthma, has to go on steroids breathing treatments at home. He spent several nights at Dayton Children's because of his asthma. And so with COVID, that obviously is the biggest concern, especially with the Delta variant that's going to go straight into his lungs," Arblaster says.

Nicolette Winner, Tipp City parent
Jo Ingles
Nicolette Winnder, Tipp City parent

When Nicolette Winner decided to put her two kids in the same schools earlier this summer, she thought masks would be required.

"My children do go to school masked, but my youngest is the only one in his room, the teacher included, who masks. And my oldest is partway through vaccination. He should be wrapping that up, hopefully, next week. But he's one of very few who actually mask as well," Winner says.

Deneese Steele, Columbus School For Girls parent
Jo Ingles
Deneese Steele, parent of student at the Columbus School For Girls

Some schools have been requiring their students to wear masks from the beginning, like the private school Deneese Steele’s daughter attends in Columbus.

“I think it takes a layer of worry and complexity off the table. I don't have to wonder what's happening on a day to day," Steele says.

Supporters of vaccine freedom bill outside Ohio Statehouse
Jo Ingles
Supporters of vaccine freedom bill outside Ohio Statehouse

But some outspoken parents don’t want mask mandates in school and are showing up at the Statehouse and at school board meetings with their complaints, which have sometimes gotten heated.

Lindsay Woodruff, Tipp City parent
Jo Ingles
Lindsay Woodruff, Tipp City Parent

Lindsay Woodruff’s 10-year-old daughter started school in the Tipp City Public schools but now she’s back at the private school she attended last year. Woodruff says the last straw was when her daughter felt unsafe during a team-building exercise at the public school.

“And she ended up when I picked her up from school, she was in the middle of an anxiety attack because she did not feel safe at school as teachers and educators," Woodruff says.

Pediatric doctors have said COVID hospitalizations among kids are rising – with some children seriously ill and even on ventilators. And while Ohio Department of Health Director Bruce Vanderhoff has stressed the importance of wearing masks indoors and in schools, he stops short of calling on DeWine, his boss, to attempt to put another statewide mask mandate in place.

You can see more on this story on this week's "State of Ohio" on your local PBS station or click here.

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