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Families divided in Painesville over mask-wearing at school

Some parents believe board's denial of mask mandate at Riverside Local Schools is politically-motivated
Posted at 4:57 PM, Sep 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-22 20:17:29-04

PAINESVILLE, Ohio — Mask mandates are among the hottest topics at school board meetings in Ohio and across the country.

It's an issue now dividing families in the Riverside Local School District where board members recently voted to make mask-wearing optional for students.

Some parents believe that decision was politically motivated and that some board members are letting their personal feelings get in the way of their kids’ health.

One of those parents is Julie St. John who has three kids in the district.

As of Tuesday, there have been 109 positive COVID-19 cases reported to administrators.

That's nearly half of the total amount (243) reported throughout the entirety of last school year.

“Their safety and well-being is obviously my number one concern. And I think for a school not to take just the simplest of preventative measures is very concerning,” said St. John.

St. John and other like-minded parents attended the last two school board meetings to express their opinions, as did parents on the other side of the aisle.

“Freedom is about being able to make choices. Now, masks should be optional. Masks are not normal. Requiring masks should not be normal,” said parent Richard Wright.

But she feels when the decision was made, it wasn’t with the kids’ best interests in mind.

“The argument about freedoms and civil liberties, you know, unfortunately in this instance, you know, it just doesn't work. It needs to be everybody collectively working together for the greater good to protect all of our children from this highly contagious virus that's circulating,” said St. John.

At last week’s special school board meeting regarding masks, board member Thomas Hach addressed parents in the audience.

“We’re here to defend the Constitution, implement the Constitution, and to make sure that your Constitutional rights are not violated,” said Hach.

St. John disagreed with his message.

“You can see explicitly there that he is saying that the board's number one job is upholding the Constitution, not our children. It's upholding the Constitution. And I don't think that that's right,” said St. John.

Hach is serving his third term on the board, but he’s also a member of Free Ohio Now, an organization formed last year in response to health orders imposed by the government during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The group’s website uses terms like ‘plandemic’ and ‘scamdemic’ and posts materials for businesses and citizens to oppose mask mandates.

Hach is listed as the primary contact on several of the group’s press releases, including one sent out on September 14 of this year.

“I feel duped as a citizen and as a resident of the school district, but he has a clear conflict of interest and he's still on our board,” said parent Katherine Anderson.

Anderson has a daughter in second grade in the Riverside Local School District. She said she sends her to school wearing a kid-sized N95 mask, but she said her daughter is only one of two to three kids who wear masks in class.

She, St. John, and eight other parents wrote this letter to the board back on September 3 calling for the special meeting where the mask mandate was eventually shot down.

She said since then, they’ve also reached out to the district about Hach’s involvement in Free Ohio Now, but there hasn’t been a response.

“I feel helpless because I've done everything in my power, everything that I can to advocate for my student's safety and every student's safety, and it's on deaf ears, unfortunately,” said Anderson.

News 5 reached out to Riverside Local School District for comments on parents’ concerns about the lack of a mask mandate and Hach’s involvement in Free Ohio Now. The district sent this statement in response:

Board members are elected to the Board of Education and vote on a variety of issues related to school business and policy. Often resolutions are unanimous, but sometimes they are not. A Board resolution, even if not unanimous, represents the position of the Riverside Local School District Board of Education.

The masking topic has been discussed during several of our recent Board meetings. In addition, the Board has received countless emails and phone calls over the past month regarding face masks in schools – many for mandatory masks in schools and many asking that masks in schools be optional.

At our September 16, 2021, Board Meeting, our Board considered a resolution to adopt mandatory masking in schools. The Board listened to all community members and parents who wanted to speak during the public participation portion of this meeting, and the Board discussed the matter after all public comments were made.

Ultimately, the Board voted to keep masks optional by a 3-2 vote. The entire meeting can be seen here [youtube.com]. This is the position of the Riverside Local School District Board of Education until further notice.
Riverside Local School District

News 5 also reached out to Hach directly about his work with Free Ohio Now and how it relates to the school board, he wasn’t available Wednesday, but said he would do an interview via email sometime early next week.

Jade Jarvis is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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