Q & A: Why are more Northeast Ohio school districts moving away from mask mandates?

Kids in masks at long white tables.
State data shows that fewer than half of Northeast Ohio's school districts have some type of mask mandate in place. [Prostock-studio / Shutterstock]
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Schools have remained places of some of the most heated debate through this pandemic, and mask requirements, or the lack thereof, have often been a big part of the conversation. Many districts in Northeast Ohio have recently moved from mask mandates to mask-optional policies. All Things Considered host Tony Ganzer spoke with Ideastream Public Media education reporter Jenny Hamel about this trend.

Many schools required masks because of the highly contagious delta variant and worries of a surge, but it seems like some schools have changed tact. Do we know how many? 

The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) crunched some numbers for us and the data shows that in nine counties in Northeast Ohio there has been a sizable drop in districts that are enforcing masks. Just about a month ago, 63% of the districts had a universal or partial mask mandate in place. And as of last week, that number is down to 45% of districts.

Districts like Parma, Avon Lake, Hudson and Brecksville Broadview Heights all recently announced they were relaxing their policies.

Let's focus in on one of those school districts — Avon Lake Schools. What is Superintendent Bob Scott saying about all this? 

Avon Lake, until last Monday, did have a mask policy for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, but now masks are optional for all students. Superintendent Scott told me that low COVID numbers in Lorain County, the city and their schools, specifically, was a factor, as was the fact they feel if there’s a COVID outbreak, they can manage cases building by building.

“We're watching these numbers closely and people are saying, 'It's politics, it's politics.' No, it’s not. We've got every kid and every parent all across the spectrum. We want to have kids in school, keep them safe and have school. If we have to mask everybody in order to keep them in school every day, which is the most important thing, we will do that,” Scott told Ideastream Public Media.

Kids ages 5 to 11 can get doses of the Pfizer vaccine now. How is this playing into school district policy changes? 

The younger kids being eligible for the vaccine is definitely part of the equation. Another big driver is the state’s newly updated quarantine guidance based on evidence that showed schools are low-transmission environments. So, the guidance basically allows kids exposed to COVID to stay in school, wearing a mask, unless they start experiencing symptoms of the illness or test positive for the virus. Now, that came out in late October and the ODE data shows a lot of districts changed their mask policies after that.  

Governor Mike DeWine, he visited Hudson Middle School last week during a vaccine clinic for younger kids, and he advised districts to keep up with the mask wearing. But the Hudson School District seems not to be convinced?

That’s right. On Monday, the Hudson School District board voted to do away with their mask mandate for high school students. District Superintendent Phil Herman said the mask mandate for K-8 students would continue to give the younger kids a chance to get fully vaccinated, and then the board will reassess at its Dec. 13 meeting.

I talked to one Hudson dad. His name is Shawn Buterbaugh, who really feels the board and administration are making the best decisions for their families and kids, but he has major concerns. He has a young daughter who is immunocompromised, and he’s worried that his son in ninth grade will want to protect his sister by wearing a mask, but might be surrounded by other kids who don’t.

“So, my son is at a social age. He's, you know, a freshman in high school. So, he gets a lot of social pressure to kind of go with the flow or go with the crowd. So, he is conflicted. Very much so because he wants to fit in. But he is still going to be wearing a mask in high school, and I'm sure he's going to get bullied and kind of ostracized because of it,” Buterbaugh told Ideastream Public Media.

We've been talking about districts moving away from mask mandates, but that's not all of them. Some of them are keeping the mandates, right?

We know that in Shaker Heights, Cleveland metro schools, Solon, Cleveland Heights-University Heights, mask mandates are in place. And ODE data shows that in Cuyahoga County as of last week, nearly 80% of the districts have a complete or partial mandate - that rate is much higher than the region or state. So, the takeaway is that the big urban districts and these nearby suburban districts feel that mask wearing is a necessary part of its COVID prevention strategy.

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