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How Central Ohio Schools Are Navigating Face Mask Policies

Champion Middle School in Columbus.
Mary Rathke
Champion Middle School in Columbus.

With Central Ohio K-12 schools starting today and later this month, each district is setting its own COVID-19 policies to make sure they can begin the year on the right foot. But districts differ in whether to require face masks, leave them optional or somewhere in between.

Currently, the CDC requires everyone riding public transportation to be masked up, which includes school buses. School districts are keeping up with that requirement.

And that’s where large, overarching requirements end. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced last month that he would not be issuing any mask mandates, and that he’s leaving it to school districts and parents. But he added that he still recommends face masks, and getting the vaccine.

“The evidence is just absolutely overwhelming. I desperately want to see our kids in school this year," DeWine said. "We do not want to go through a year where they’re in and out of school. We do not want to go through a year where many of them are remote.”

In March, the Ohio legislature overrode DeWine’s veto of a bill that would let lawmakers overturn public health and emergency orders from state and local health departments, which could include face mask mandates. It also banned local health departments from shutting down schools.

But districts' decisions on whether to require masks are all over the place.

One of the more prominent announcements was Columbus City Schools. Last month, the district said they would require face masks for both vaccinated and unvaccinated students not just on buses, but in schools too at all grade levels.

In the announcement, Columbus Schools Superintendent Talisa Dixon said she felt the masks were the best decision for the district and community as they made it with guidance from health officials.

"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," she said.

One Columbus Schools parent, Karen White, voiced her support for the district’s decision at a recent board meeting.

“I know that we all want our students in the buildings whenever possible, and this mask requirement is the first step in keeping our children and our staff safe and in school buildings for the 2021-2022 school year,” White said.

After that, a few other districts began following suit. Bexley and Westerville will require face masks for all students, staff and essential visitors.

Other districts however are leaving masks optional. Districts like Olentangy Schools, Canal Winchester, Licking Heights Local Schools and South-Western City Schools are not requiring them but still strongly recommend students wear them. Many recommendations are regardless of vaccination status.

But the biggest trend has been a mix of requiring and recommending face masks. Districts like Dublin City Schools, Upper Arlington, Worthington and Whitehall for example are only requiring masks for students up to the eighth grade. Other districts like Hilliard require them up to the sixth grade. After that, they’re only strongly encouraged.

Dublin Superintendent John Marschhausen said at a town hall last week that the district wants to be transparent about its decisions, including its mask requirements.

“I think it’s important that we recognize that this is a fluid process. That since last Wednesday when a plan was announced, many things have changed," he said. "The situation with COVID in our community and in our county isn’t getting any better.”

Moving forward, experts like Ohio Department of Health director Bruce Vanderhoff have continued to urge wearing face masks, saying that masking is effective in fighting the coronavirus.

“There are in fact studies of masking that have looked at, ‘Do masks protect the wearer even if an infected patient or individual is not in fact themselves wearing a mask?’ And the answer is yes,” Vanderhoff said.

But the bottom line is that most of the schools will be keeping an eye on their school’s COVID case numbers and other federal, state and local data, and make changes to their policies based on those.

Michael Lee joined WOSU in 2021, but was previously an intern at the station in 2018. He is a graduate from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism where he obtained his master's degree, and an alumnus of Ohio State University. Michael has previously worked as an intern at the Columbus Dispatch and most recently, the Chicago Sun-Times.