ROCKY RIVER, Ohio — A new divide has emerged over coronavirus prevention measures as children head back into classrooms for the 2021-2022 school year. Face masks - and whether to make them mandatory or optional - has sparked debates in school districts across Northeast Ohio.
Health policy decisions are being left to educators as a result of Senate Bill 22, which Ohio lawmakers passed in March. The bill allows lawmakers to strike down public health orders put into place by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. DeWine vetoed the legislation but was swiftly overruled.
During a news conference in July, DeWine said he would not issue a mask mandate for schools because "there is not an appetite" for the policy and doesn't believe he has the authority over this pandemic-related policy.
What the superintendent says
Willoughby-Eastlake Superintendent Steve Thompson said decisions about health policies should be left to health officials, instead of individual school districts.
“What makes more sense to me, instead of a shotgun or scattered approach that doesn’t seem like a very effective way to deal with a pandemic, the people that are in the positions to make these decisions that can be more global should be making some of these decisions," Thompson said. "But we’re not seeing that, obviously."
Thompson said he discussed mask policy with Lake County health officials and parents on both sides of the debate. The district decided on a mask optional policy - for now.
"We feel that is a parental choice to make at this point in the stage of this pandemic," he said. "That could change depending on what we see happen moving forward, in terms of cases."
“I’m hoping we can create an environment where more students than you would ever think show up in masks," Thompson said. He also hopes parents and politicians can "put our children above our political views."
"I wish we could dial down the hostility dial to civility," he said. "I can’t recall a more divisive time than what we’re in right now."
What the attorney says
Peter Zawadski, an attorney at Walter Haverfield, an Ohio law firm which represents dozens of Northeast Ohio school districts, said it is in their interest to follow guidance from public health officials when they create mask policies.
"It’s best if you can fall back on the fact that you followed the state guidance, the federal guidance," he said. "You're not going at it alone." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ohio Department of Health, and American Academy of Pediatrics all recommend students and staff wear masks.
Zawadski said it is also critical for school districts to follow another new rule. Vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals must be treated the same.
"What would be important... is that you treat the students the same," he said. Any mask policy must apply "across the board" regardless of vaccination status. “Ultimately, you are a public school district, that is supposed to be watching out for the health of everybody within the district’s buildings," he said.
What parents say
Dr. Lynette Karth, an OB-GYN and mother of two elementary students in the Rocky River school district said masks should be mandatory for students and staff at this time.
“We do know that children can get this infection and spread it," she said. "This is something simple that we can do to protect our children."
Karth said there is evidence masks decrease the spread of COVID-19 and that the spread is increasing in Northeast Ohio due to the Delta variant.
"It makes a lot of sense to follow those very explicit and very well thought out guidelines from these national and respected organizations (like the CDC)," she said. "There really isn’t a risk to wearing a paper mask or a cloth mask," she said. "My kids will be wearing masks. They’ll be leaving home with masks, and I very much hope they’ll be keeping them on the entire time at school."
Karen McGettrick, whose grandchildren live in Rocky River, said masks should be optional. McGettrick was one of at least two dozen parents and interested parties who attended the Rocky River School Board meeting last Wednesday to discuss mask policies.
“In general, the masks do more harm to small children," McGettrick said. “They touch it, they pull it down, they pick their noses." She also said, "as far as their social development, they have trouble distinguishing facial expressions and things like that that are essential for young children."
Only two women spoke at the meeting to advocate against a mask mandate, but found support among some in the crowd. The speakers' statements were met with hearty applause and cheers. They were also interrupted by outrage from parents in support of a mask mandate. The meeting took place in the dark after the storm outside knocked out power.
When she spoke, one mom who supports mask mandates said, "I don’t want anyone playing Russian Roulette with my kids."
Another mom said, “Optional masking is like having no pee section in the pool. Pretty gross."
Karth said she's disappointed there is any debate surrounding wearing masks.
"As a physician and as a mom, it saddens me that people don’t want to take care of other people," seh said.
Rocky River Superintendent Michael Shoaf proposed masking masks mandatory for grades K-5 and masks optional for grades 6-12. Vaccines are not approved for children under 12. The school board will vote on the superintendent's proposal during a Rocky River School District Board of Education meeting Thursday at 6 p.m.
Federal law currently requires face masks to be worn on public transportation so children will be required to wear masks on school buses.