CLEVELAND — In just days, students across Ohio will head back to school for another year of learning in a pandemic.
However, unlike last year, this year brings vaccinations available to those 12 and older and also new state laws limiting what health leaders can impose on schools.
It comes as concerns over rising coronavirus cases among schoolchildren exist in states such as Arizona, Florida and Mississippi, where the school year is already underway.
For Willoughby-Eastlake School District superintendent Steve Thompson, it’s been a busy summer trying to prepare for what could happen and whether or not schools will contribute to a similar rise in positive COVID-19 cases that occurred during the fall of 2020.
“I’m hoping we’ll be able to keep our kids in for a prolonged period of time,” he said. “I’m hopeful we can have some semblance of normalcy. As numbers continue to rise, that reality is seemingly a little more in question. We’re processing internally through the what-if scenarios and we have responses ready to move. Our hands are pretty tied to what our responses can be and there is not a specific number of options.”
One of those restrictions, Thompson told News 5, is House Bill 244, which passed the Ohio legislature this summer and takes effect in October. The law prohibits schools from mandating vaccines, or treating students who are vaccinated differently from those unvaccinated.
“We’re doing the best we can to educate our students to the best possible extent we can and in the safest way we can,” he said.
It’s an issue that worries health leaders across Northeast Ohio, who are unable to impose their own guidance and mandates under new laws.
“We’re very concerned about that frankly,” Geauga County Health Commissioner Tom Quade said. “All we have to look at is history. As we look at last year, we saw as folks moved inside, kids go to school, and sports where there’s much closer contact. All those things increase the likelihood of transmission. They’re not bad things, they just increase the likelihood of transmission so we see the numbers go up.”
Summit County Health Commissioner Donna Skoda told News 5 that preparing for this fall feels much more difficult compared to the same time period last year.
“I think individuals were far more willing to wear masks in school and I think we were reeling from those first few months of realizing how serious and people are dying,” she said. “This year seems to see a lot of mask fatigue. We have a lot of people who want to go back to normal and we deserve to be out of this, although we’re not. This school year will be dicey. If children are not masked in school, there are going to be whole classrooms of children if they're unvaccinated, going to have to be in quarantine. We want kids in school and the best way to keep kids in school based on the experience last year, is to wear a mask.”
With more transmission in the classroom, Skoda told News 5 that COVID-19 could travel past school grounds.
“One of the biggest fears I have is last year we saw very little spread in the classroom because they were masked and teachers were there to make sure they kept their mask on,” she said. “This year we’re going to see a lot more spread if they’re unmasked. But we’re also going to see them bring it home to more vulnerable individuals.”
For superintendent Thompson, all he can do now is focus on the start of school, which is set for August 18.
“What’s next: start school, monitor very closely, the situation is very fluid and subject to change,” Thompson said. “I would just say stay tuned.”
Visit our Vaccinating Ohio page for the latest updates on Ohio's vaccination program, including links to sign up for a vaccine appointment, a map of nearby vaccination sites, a detailed breakdown of the state's current vaccine phase, and continuing local coverage of COVID-19 vaccines in Northeast Ohio.
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