Columbus City Schools to mandate masks in schools, on buses this fall. Will other schools follow?
Columbus City Schools will require students, staff and visitors to wear masks in school buildings and on school buses when fully in-person classes resume.
The state's largest school district, with about 47,000 students enrolled, announced the change in policy Thursday afternoon. Previously, district officials had said they would not be mandating masks in the upcoming school year.
Most students return to class Aug. 26, but the district does have one year-round building, Woodcrest Elementary School, that returns from summer break on July 29.
“Safely returning to in-person instruction in the fall is a priority, and masks provide an extra layer of protection in reducing transmission of the COVID-19 virus,” Superintendent Talisa Dixon said in a statement. “Throughout this pandemic, we have relied on the guidance of our public health officials. We feel that this is the best decision for our district and community.”
What about other central Ohio schools?
For now, it appears most other central Ohio districts will be going forward with no mask mandates this school year, based on plans submitted to the Ohio Department of Education last month.
But it's possible more changes could be coming before students head back to classrooms next month.
On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended masks in schools for everybody over the age of 2, regardless if they've received a COVID-19 vaccine. That's a stricter position than the stance the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took earlier this month, when it recommended masks only for individuals who aren't vaccinated.
The CDC issued the new guidelines on July 9, urging schools to fully reopen buildings next school year. If students are vaccinated, the CDC had only recommended mask-wearing while they're riding a bus.
But since COVID-19 vaccines are currently only approved for individuals age 12 and older, that leaves out all elementary children and some middle school students. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently said that emergency authorization for vaccines for those under 12 could come in early to midwinter.
While the guidelines aren’t mandatory, they are expected to influence school officials, health departments and governors nationwide who are in the midst of preparing for students to return to the classroom this fall.
Columbus City Schools, for example, cited the recommendations in Thursday's announcement, as well as conversations with Columbus Public Health.
“The pandemic is not over and case numbers are rising again because of the Delta variant and low vaccination rates in our community,” Columbus Public Health Commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts said in a statement. “Kids need to be in the classroom where they can learn and thrive and masks are an important tool for protecting staff and students who are too young to get vaccinated.”
Last year, while most schools in central Ohio resumed fully in-person classes in the spring, Columbus City Schools and many other, large, urban school districts took a more cautious approach. The district kept students in a "blended learning" model, divided into two groups that only attended classes in-person two days each week.
How will schools protect students who are too young to be vaccinated?
Some Columbus parents had already expressed concerns about their young children returning to school in the fall prior to Thursday's announcement.
Prior to Thursday's change, Dorcas Mitchell, 45, of the East Side, said she was especially concerned about her daughter, who has diabetes starting fifth grade. The 10-year-old was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes last fall, so she is more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19.
“It’s nerve-racking to say the least,” Mitchell told the Dispatch prior to Thursday's announcement.
Mitchell said her daughter was going to wear a mask to school regardless of the district's policies. The district is offering a fully online option for students called "BlendED," but both families chose not to enroll.
Mitchell said she wanted her children to have a classroom experience. Creagh expressed concerns about the requirement that families commit to participating for the entire school year.
Ohio could ban masks in public schools this fall
It's possible that activity at the Ohio Statehouse could also eventually impact what happens inside classrooms this academic year.
Senate Bill 209, introduced earlier this month by Sen. Andrew Brenner, a Republican from Powell, would prevent public K-12 schools and universities from requiring students, staff or visitors to wear masks while in class, at school-sponsored sporting events or during extracurricular activities. The bill would not apply to private schools.
The proposed ban won't be in place before the start of the upcoming school year, though. Ohio lawmakers aren't meeting to pass legislation until September and any changes would need 90 days to take effect.
Columbus City Schools will offer some specific exemptions to its masking policy, based on the recommendations of health experts. Students who qualify include: children with significant behavioral and psychological issues that are exacerbated by the use of a face covering; children living with severe autism or developmental delays; and children with facial deformities that cause airway obstructions.
The district "will continue to monitor public health guidance and update its protocols accordingly as new information becomes available," its statement said.