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Village Schools

Superintendent Terri Holden announced that mask wearing in the schools would become optional effective Wednesday, March 9. (News archive photo by Megan Bachman)

Masks optional at Yellow Springs public schools

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Masks are no longer required in Yellow Springs public schools.

In a letter dated March 6 and sent to district families and staff on Monday, March 7, Superintendent Terri Holden announced that mask wearing in the schools would become optional effective Wednesday, March 9.

“What this means is that all district students and staff are no longer required to wear masks in school, at school events or on district transportation,” the letter stated.

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Masks had been required for all students, staff and visitors since in-school activities began to resume incrementally after the pandemic-related shutdown in spring 2020. While many area school districts started the 2021–22 school year with masks being optional, Yellow Springs maintained its universal requirement, with school leaders citing the policy’s effectiveness as other districts experienced significantly higher coronavirus case numbers through the fall.

While some parents lauded this week’s change, others expressed concern not only about the potential for increased viral spread, but also for the limited time span between the new policy’s announcement and implementation.

Medically vulnerable families “basically [had] one day to figure out what to do with their kids who cannot be around unmasked people,” Kate Hamilton, a local parent, wrote in an email.

Holden had said during the last regular school board meeting Feb. 10 that the district was considering lifting the mask requirement, possibly after spring break, which is March 21–25.

Hamilton, who has three children in Yellow Springs schools, said she expected the school board to address the issue at its next regular meeting, originally scheduled Thursday, March 10, but postponed because of scheduling conflicts until a week later, March 17.

According to Holden, the policy revision is timely.

“This change is occurring based upon the changing landscape of COVID numbers in Yellow Springs, Greene County … and across the country, as well as changes in health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Ohio Department of Health (ODH), and Greene County Public Health (GCPH),” the superintendent wrote.

The vaccination rates of Yellow Springs students, the coronavirus-related admission numbers at Dayton Children’s Hospital and the opinions of district families also helped determine the decision, Holden wrote. Attached to the letter were recent health agency and hospital reports along with results of the district’s surveys.

Assessing community risk

The CDC recently revised its framework for monitoring community levels of COVID-19, taking into consideration not only the number of new cases in a county, but also the number of new coronavirus-related hospitalizations and the number of hospital beds being used by COVID-19 patients. The CDC recommends that counties designated at a “high” community level continue to wear masks indoors, but those at a “medium” or “low” level may go without. Greene County was listed at a “medium” level last week and is “low” this week, according to the CDC.

The CDC also lifted, effective Feb. 25, the requirement that passengers on public transportation, including school buses, wear a mask.

Epidemiologist Meagan Fitzpatrick, a Yale-trained infectious disease transmission modeler who is on faculty at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine, thinks that the CDC’s new guidelines are limited in their scope.

“The one single goal is to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed — whether there will be a hospital bed if you get COVID,” Fitzpatrick said in a phone call this week. “I think that most people don’t want to get COVID in the first place.”

Toward that end, the CDC’s previous guidelines are still useful, she said. Vaccinations, masking and social distancing were among the mitigating actions identified by the CDC last summer, when it designated “high” community incidence at case levels of 100 or more per 100,000 residents.

Greene County Public Health, in a statement released March 1, said it supports the CDCS’s new “Community Level framework,” especially in light of the downward trend in case numbers and hospitalizations over recent weeks.

Fitzpatrick notes that case numbers are going down because of mitigation efforts, not necessarily because those efforts are no longer needed.

“The virus is responding to us,” she said.

According to the ODH’s most recent data, Greene County’s numbers, while continuing to fall from historic highs in mid-January, are still at a “high” level in terms of per capita figures. As of Thursday, March 3, the county had 102.4 cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period.

Fifty to 99 cases per 100,000 residents is “substantial;” 10 to 49 is “moderate;” and less than 10 is “low.”

Fitzpatrick said that her elementary-school-aged son will keep his mask on indoors around other people as long as her Maryland community’s transmission rates are substantial or high.

“Until cases get into the moderate zone, I’m keeping a mask on my son in school,” she said. She said the decision is not only for her son’s health, but for her entire family’s, which includes an elderly relative and a pre-school child who isn’t eligible for vaccination because of his age.

Local factors

As older children have been able to get vaccinated, the weekly data released by Dayton Children’s Hospital, the children’s medical facility closest to Yellow Springs, show a decline in the percentage of COVID-19 cases each week through February. The data cover seven-day-old infants to 21-year-old young adults.

The week of Jan. 30 through Feb. 5 saw 39 new COVID-19 hospitalizations, with four patients in the intensive care unit, and 23% of all new hospitalizations positive for the virus. Feb. 20–-26, the most recent week reported, had 17 new coronavirus cases, with five in ICU, and a 5% new patient positivity rate. A large majority of patients testing positive were unvaccinated, according to the hospital’s reporting.

Yellow Springs school leaders have encouraged families to vaccinate all eligible students. A vaccination survey of families earlier this year received responses for 481 of the district’s 716 students. Of those 481 students, 440 reportedly had been vaccinated.

A more recent survey of families and staff about mask wearing asked whether respondents wanted to maintain the universal policy through the rest of the school year, make it optional after spring break or make it optional as soon as possible. The majority chose to go optional ASAP.

Staff at the middle school/high school campus responded with 13 (36.1%) wanting to continue wearing masks through the year, six (16.7%) selecting to make it optional after break and 17 (47.2%) choosing ASAP. Staff at Mills Lawn Elementary were nine (27.3%) in favor of continuing masking all year, seven (21.2%) choosing optional after break and 17 (51.5%) selecting optional ASAP. The responses from staff members working out of the district office, including bus drivers, were: four (28.6%) to keep masking, two (14.3%) to go optional after break and eight (57.1%) to be optional ASAP.

Parents and guardians with students at both campuses responded with 15 (25.9%) in favor of continued universal masking, 13 (22.4%) ready to make it optional after break and 30 (51.7%) wanting to go optional ASAP. At Mills Lawn Elementary, 70 parents and guardians (32%) wanted to keep the masking policy, 41 (18.7%) chose to go optional after break and 108 (43.4%) to go optional ASAP. At the middle/high school campus, 38 (26%) chose end of year, 44 (30.1%) selected optional after spring break and 64 (43.8%) wanted optional ASAP.

Although mask-wearing is now optional in general in Yellow Springs schools, there is an exception, Holden noted. The district will continue to follow Ohio’s “Mask to Stay/Test to Play” guidelines adopted Dec. 30. The guidelines allow students who have been exposed to a positive case of COVID-19 to continue attending school, but they must wear a mask and monitor their health for 10 days and be tested if any symptoms arise.

Students who test positive are expected to quarantine for at least five days and then may return to school when they have no symptoms, but must wear a mask through the 10th day after their positive test. “Parent communication will still occur for close contacts of positive cases,” Holden wrote.

According to Holden, masks also may be required temporarily in the future “should a classroom or building experience a significant increase in cases.” She did not indicate the possible threshold.

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