Five school districts in the tri-county area have elected to sidestep a federal mandate requiring masks to be worn on public transportation, including school buses.
Ashland City Schools and Black River Local in Ashland County, Green Local in Wayne County and East Holmes and West Holmes districts in Holmes County are leaving the choice of whether to mask up on buses to parents and students.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 order requires drivers and passengers to “wear a mask on school buses, including on buses operated by public and private school systems, regardless of vaccination status.”
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As schools across the country grapple with how best to keep students and staff safe in the midst of a contentious mask and vaccine issue that has divided many Americans, COVID-19 cases continue to climb in Ohio, with 5,395 new cases reported Thursday, the highest since Jan. 28.
In Holmes County, 15% of the population is fully vaccinated. The number is roughly 40% in Wayne County, and some 33% of the people living in Ashland County are fully vaccinated, according to data from the Ohio Department of Health.
Health officials consider school-age children 11 and under particularly vulnerable to coronaviruses because they are not eligible for the vaccine.
CDC mask order and guidance from federal, state and local organizations
The U.S. Department of Education’s COVID-19 Handbook states the CDC’s mask guidance should be followed in schools. State organizations, including the Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Department of Education, echo those recommendations in their plan that was released in July.
Dr. Joseph Gustaldo, system medical director of infectious diseases at OhioHealth in Columbus, pointed to the American Academy of Pediatrics to show what “the national standard of care for children’s safety” looks like.
“The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics are in complete alignment for requiring children to wear masks, so that’s what the experts say,” Gustaldo said.
Local health officials, including the health commissioners in Ashland, Holmes and Wayne counties, say they, too, are recommending mask wearing on buses and following CDC and Ohio Health Department guidance. However, they say, their hands are often tied when it comes to health orders.
Senate Bill 22 restricts state, county public officials
Recently passed Ohio Senate Bill 22 limits the ability of the governor and public officials to make health orders. For example, Wayne County Health Commissioner Nick Cascarelli said he can “issue orders for people to be in quarantine and things like that at the individual level,” but is not able to make across-the-board orders for larger populations.
These restrictions also concern Holmes County Health Commissioner Michael Derr, who worries county health recommendations may not hold as much weight in the eyes of some.
“Unfortunately, we kind of lost some of our abilities to put some things in place so when we say, ‘strongly recommend,’ we’re really saying, ‘this is like an order,’ but we’re unable to call it that,” Derr said.
Are there consequences for schools that don’t follow CDC guidance?
What will happen to school districts that fail to enact the CDC’s mask order on buses?
The answer is unclear. Some fear the potential loss of federal funding or a liability risk.
Derr figures it is up to schools to enforce masks on buses, though he does not know what will happen if schools hedge on the issue.
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Gustaldo worries that school districts may be opening themselves up to “legal risk” if a student contracts COVID after being otherwise healthy.
Maria Limbert Markakis is a Cleveland attorney who works with several school districts and educational service centers, including the Tri-County Educational Service Center in Wooster. When asked about legal concerns, Markakis said, “The CDC issued an emergency order on Feb. 1, 2021, requiring facial coverings to be worn on public transportation.” She declined to elaborate.
Voicemails left for the Ashland and Wayne County prosecutors were not immediately returned Thursday.
Looking forward into the 2021-’22 school year
Several of the school districts not requiring masks on buses said they will continue to monitor COVID developments in their communities and may change course.
“I think our board wants to make sure everybody feels comfortable with their choice, whether it be on buses or in schools,” Green Local Superintendent Dean Frank said. “And I think our attorney feels comfortable with that position, and things are always subject to change.”
Black River Local’s Board of Education met Aug. 19, and noted the district might need to step up COVID precautions if an outbreak occurs.
Superintendent Chris Clark also shared his concerns during the board meeting regarding the district’s funding.
“The reason we would stop (not mandating masks) is because $6 million of $15 million of our budget comes from the federal government,” Clark said during the meeting. “If they take that away, that’s a huge chunk of our budget that’s gone.”
Derr reminds people “it’s not too late to do something to help the community.”
“What is happening in our schools is reflective of what happens in the community,” Derr said.
“So if keeping our kiddos in school is really important to us and making sure that we have Walmart open or other places are open … we need to help out in the community and make sure that we do everything we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Ashland Times-Gazette staff writer Grant Ritchey contributed to this report.
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