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Mask Mandates Become Hot-Button Issue In School Board Elections

Fifth graders wear face masks are seated at proper social distancing spacing during a music class at the Milton Elementary School in Rye, N.Y. in this May 18, 2021 file photo.
Mary Altaffer
Fifth graders wear face masks are seated at proper social distancing spacing during a music class at the Milton Elementary School in Rye, N.Y. in this May 18, 2021 file photo.

As local school board candidates campaign for November’s election, COVID-19 has brought them a new hot-button issue — whether officials should mandate students and staff wear masks in school. Some candidates are running on the mandate issue.

Just two weeks before classes at Hilliard City Schools began in August, the district announced it would require face masks for all students and staff Pre-K through sixth grade. The initial announcement made masks optional in the older grades.

The decision angered some parents. A group called Parents for Hilliard City School Board wrote in a statement masking students should be in the hands of the parents, not the superintendent.

Then a month later, with COVID cases surging, Hilliard schools extended the policy to all students, regardless of vaccination status.

Mask mandates like that in Hilliard are why some candidates in the upcoming school board election have been vocal against — and the continuation of — masking policies.

Now the mask mandates have become a central issue in the upcoming Hilliard school board election.

Parents for Hilliard School Board has three candidates running for three spots on the district’s board of education.

Beth Murdoch is one of them. She does not believe the universal mask mandate is the best for students.

"I think personally, that sends the wrong message, that that’s been the message to people that the vaccine doesn’t work," Murdoch said. "And if we’re trying to get more people vaccinated, that’s working in the opposite direction of that.”

Murdoch said her group supports “parent’s choice” to make masking decisions because she believes masks hinder the social, emotional and developmental well-being of students. She adds that for her son, she prefers he does not have to wear a mask.

“I guess it’s part of the platform, because it’s what we’re hearing from the community," she said. "And I believe that we need to address the concerns and issues that the community are bringing up.”

Hilliard is not the only Central Ohio district where masks have become an issue for candidates on the ballot. Districts like Hamilton Local School District, Olentangy Local Schools and Gahanna-Jefferson Schools also have candidates who have spoken out against mask mandates and for parent’s choice.

But school officials and board members who support the mandates point to studies and science. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under 18 account for 26.7% of weekly COVID-19 cases as of last week. The Centers for Disease Control continues to recommend universal indoor masking in schools, saying that it will help maintain in-person learning which benefits students.

Worthington School Board member Nikki Hudson is running for re-election and supports her district’s mask mandate.

Hudson said school board members must follow the facts and not listen to an overly vocal part of the community, which is stated in the Ohio School Board Association code of ethics.

“It’s not that the parent voice doesn’t matter, and I want to be very clear about that," Hudson said. "It is at the end of the day your responsibility as board members to make decisions based on what is in the best interest of the student.”

Earlier this month, Hudson posted on Facebook that she and other school board members received threatening letters, partly due to their stance on mask mandates. Despite the threats, Hudson remains on the ballot — she said to show her children how not to back down to intimidation.

“The reason I chose to go public with this letter is because I feel like this is very much a minority view," she said. "And that minority is being very vocal.”

It may be a minority view nationally but Ohio remains divided on the issue. A recent Axios/Momentive poll showed 43% of Ohioans oppose all mask mandates — one the highest rates of opposition among battleground states. The poll found 40% of Ohioans support mask mandates for everyone in school.

Even though opinion is divided, the anti-mask side is more vocal, said Ohio State political science professor emeritus Herb Asher. Asher said masks and vaccines have been weaponized.

“To have this much debate about mandates that are really for the sake of public health, the issue isn’t really liberty, it’s become a much more political kind of issue,” Asher said.

And while both Hudson and Murdoch have heard different things from their respective communities, Asher said the election will be a good way to determine what the residents truly think.

However, Asher added that if an anti-mask mandate candidate is successful, it might make other school boards more nervous about imposing mandates like this in the future.

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.