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Last April, district librarian and media/technology specialist Eli Hurwitz introduced first graders to the library. (News archive photo by Megan Bachman)

Yellow Springs schools to require masks

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The beginning of the new school year this month will look a lot like the end of last year for Yellow Springs district students, at least in terms of COVID-19 precautions.

As teachers prepare to report Monday, Aug. 16, and students get ready to return to class the following Monday, Aug. 23, Yellow Springs Schools Superintendent Terri Holden notified families last week that mask wearing will be required by all students and adults inside the district’s school buildings regardless of their vaccination status.

“This will protect our youngest students as they are unable yet to get the vaccine,” Holden wrote in the Aug. 4 letter, which has been posted on the district’s website. “This will also provide a line of defense against new COVID-19 variants,” she continued.

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A Jan. 29 federal order requiring mask wearing on public transportation already included school buses.

Speaking by phone this week, Holden said she based her decision on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Ohio Department of Health (ODH), the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), the Greene County health department and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), all of which favor the wearing of masks in schools.

The state has left the mask decision to local districts, however; and one state senator recently introduced a bill that would prohibit mask mandates. Earlier this summer, the General Assembly adopted legislation that banned public schools and universities from requiring vaccinations for students or staff.

But with the recent surge in COVID cases, particularly related to the Delta variant, school leaders across the state continue to update their on-campus requirements, with a growing number requiring masks. The picture in Greene County is different, however, as Yellow Springs is the only district in the county to implement the requirement, according to information compiled earlier this week.

The Xenia, Beavercreek, Fairborn, Cedar Cliff, Greeneview and the Bellbrook-Sugarcreek districts have so far indicated that mask wearing will be optional. The Greene County Career Center also has made masks optional while noting that the CDC recommends that “students wear masks at all times.” All districts require mask wearing on buses, however, in response to the federal mandate for all public transportation.

“Science has shown us that the two best lines of defense against COVID-19 are vaccinations and masking,” Holden wrote last week. “We know how to wear masks and we have proven that we can do it successfully. A universal mask requirement allows us to have as normal a school year as possible.”

This week she said that universal mask wearing in the schools will give the district “more freedom.”

Asked to explain what she meant, Holden said that the latest quarantine guidelines from the ODH take a “layered” approach. The more preventative measures a district has in place — such as mask wearing, distancing and vaccinations — the less likely quarantine would be required, should students be exposed to the virus.

According to the ODH, quarantine is not necessary for any vaccinated person after a possible exposure, nor will it be necessary for unvaccinated individuals in the schools — children and adults — if certain measures are in place, including:

• Mask wearing by all students and adults
• Physical distancing actions
• The promotion of hand washing and respiratory etiquette
• Protocols for building ventilation and cleaning
• Policies regarding COVID-19 screening, testing, contact tracing and quarantining.

“Ohio’s goal is to keep K-12 students in school, in person, five days a week,” the ODH’s fact sheet states, in bold lettering. “Students benefit cognitively, emotionally and developmentally from in-person learning.”

According to ODH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, “Developing guidelines that will allow well-protected students to be able to remain in the classroom as much as possible — even if there has been an exposure to COVID-19 — help facilitate that important in-person learning this year.”

The ODH says its guidelines are supported by the CDC, which currently recommends universal indoor masking regardless of vaccination status.
It also echoes the American Academy of Pediatrics, which last month recommended that “everyone older than age 2 wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.”

“We need to prioritize getting children back into schools alongside their friends and their teachers,” according to Dr. Sonja O’Leary, chair of the AAP Council on School Health. “The pandemic has taken a heartbreaking toll on children, and it’s not just their education that has suffered but their mental, emotional and physical health. Combining layers of protection that include vaccinations, masking and clean-hands hygiene will make in-person learning safe and possible for everyone.”

According to the AAP, “research shows that opening schools generally does not significantly increase community transmission with masking and other safety measures in place.”

In line with the ODH’s guidelines, Yellow Springs has produced a 12-page “Bulldog Blueprint for Safe & Healthy Fearless Thinkers” that addresses the recommended protocols and measures.
In addition to the masking requirement, the district will keep in place the additional health and safety protocols established when students returned to in-person instruction last year, Holden said this week.

Contact tracing will be overseen by Director of Business Operations Jeff Eyrich with the support of the school nurses. At the directions of a school or nurse, or a family request, parents can receive a take-home COVID-19 screening test. Students who receive a positive result will be referred to their medical professional for further testing and treatment.

If quarantine is recommended, according to ODH guidelines, individuals should stay home and away from others as much as possible for at least seven days after the most recent exposure and receive a negative COVID test on or after the fifth day.

Holden said that the district is working with Greene County Public Health to host a vaccine clinic on Aug. 20 that will be open to district staff, students aged 12 and older and community members who have not been vaccinated. The time and location have not been determined.

In an effort to minimize the number of students and family members in the building before the start of the school year, Mills Lawn Elementary School will hold an informal outdoor Meet the Teacher Night on Thursday, Aug. 19, from 5:45–6:45 p.m. Each teacher will have a table on the school’s blacktop or lawn.

Holden said the protocols will be updated as CDC, ODH and ODE recommendations change. The in-school mask mandate will continue for “the foreseeable future,” Holden said, declining to conjecture about an end date.

“It’s until further notice, until the CDC comes out with new recommendations,” she said. “My hope is that it’s not all year.”

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