COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio Department of Health strongly recommends that school staff and eligible students get vaccinated for COVID-19, and that those who cannot or choose not to receive the vaccine wear masks at school consistently.
The recommendations come amid rising COVID-19 cases from the more contagious Delta variant, said Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, the Chief Medical Director of the ODH.
"It simply takes less of this virus to spread from the mouth or nose to that of another non-infected person," Vanderhoff said of the Delta variant.
Fortunately, the vaccines continue to provide strong protection against COVID-19 and the Delta variant, Vanderhoff said.
"COVID-19 remains a threat primarily for unvaccinated," he said. He recommended that anyone unsure about the vaccine talk to their doctor to determine if it is the right choice for them.
Vanderhoff said the department's full recommendations for schools will be posted to the ODH website by Tuesday at the latest. These recommendations come after reviewing recommendations from the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as input from other experts. They will not be mandated.
"The recommendations we are issuing are essential to Ohio’s youth and safety of the upcoming school year," Vanderhoff said. "The safety of Ohio's children is paramount."
Vanderhoff said that while children are at less risk than adults for severe illness from a COVID infection, hundreds of Ohio children have become severely ill with multisystem inflammatory syndrome as a result of the virus.
"They’re not invincible," Vanderhoff said. "Children get sick from COVID-19, just like adults, and some suffer severe outcomes."
Vanderhoff said that in-school instruction is the best method of learning for many students. It's an important factor for emotional and social development in students, Vanderhoff said, as well as for other reasons, such as ensuring proper nutrition and physical activity.
"We are building upon the layered prevention strategies that were remarkably effective at controlling COVID-19 last school year, along with the addition of encouraging COVID vaccines that are now available and authorized for those who are 12 or older," Vanderhoff said.
For these reasons, the ODH has issued guidance that will give the flexibility and support for in-person learning five days a week at Ohio's schools.
The ODH's guidance for Ohio's schools boils down to three main points:
1. Strongly recommend vaccination for staff and eligible students
2. Strongly recommend those who are not vaccinated consistently wear masks
3. Improving ventilation, distancing, hand sanitizing and other measures
No vaccine is yet approved for children under 12 years old.
The recommendations come as Ohio lawmakers are attempting to prohibit mask mandates in schools. Senate Bill 209, introduced by state Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, is unlikely to impact school district decisions for the fall, as lawmakers are on break until after most schools return to class.
During Monday's news conference, Vanderhoff posed some frequently asked questions about the upcoming school year to the other experts who were in attendance. Below are those questions and the answers from the experts.
What are some of the ways that parents can help prepare their children for wearing masks and schools?
Dr. Patty Manning-Courtney, of Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital said parents and caregivers can just talk to their kids calmly and confidently about what returning to school will look like.
“We're going to have to do this again. Not a big deal. You did it last year. And again, I've said many times kids have impressed me so much with their flexibility and their ability to wear masks and not make a big deal about it,” she said.
She also recommends parents use a strategy used among pediatricians called social stories, where doctors write short stories for kids to prepare them for something that is different.
What advice do you have for families of students who were virtual all through last year and may be anxious or nervous about having their children returned to the classroom?
Manning-Courtney said the same anxiety students and parents are facing about returning to school is the same as what doctors have been seeing when it came time for those who worked virtual for most of last year to return to work.
Like last year, she said she is confident schools will keep their students and staff safe.
“We learned that everything you said, masking, distancing, hygiene, ventilation, those things work in our schools, have a whole year of practice in doing that. So I trust our schools and our teachers to continue that good work and to keep our students safe,” she said.
Why is it important for children to return to in-person learning this fall?
Dr. Shefali Mahesh, of Akron Children’s Hospital, said children go to school to learn and get smarter in what doctors call an intelligence quotient. But there are also elements of virtual learning that make it difficult for teachers to pick up on a student’s non-verbal cues.
"Our teachers are trained to find new ways where they can have children, feel or touch things to maybe understand things a little better. Again, those are the skills that we're losing out on when we're doing learning virtually," Mahesh said.
By returning to in-person learning, Mahesh said students receive a more structured environment to learn and grow through activities like organized sports and structured meals.
"I think that in-person learning and schools provide a safe, supervised environment for children to grow and thrive. And that's where the importance of going back to school in person is," she said.
What would you say to parents who are still hesitant to vaccinate their children or encourage their children to mask as we move forward into this school year?
Mahesh said she started referring to COVID-19 as a vaccine-preventable disease because vaccinations have prevented many long-term problems like measles and polio. She tells parents to think about the vaccine as a tool.
“Masks prevent protect us, but also allows the transmission to be interrupted to the point that this will all be behind us, hopefully, sooner than we can imagine it to be. I want to try to hopefully encourage people to think about both vaccinations and masks in a little bit of a different manner."
Re-watch Monday's discussion regarding COVID-19 guidance for the upcoming school year in the media player below:
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