After two weeks of requiring Canton Local Schools students and staff to wear masks in the classroom, district leaders have opted to move back to optional masking when the students return Tuesday after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Superintendent Brett Yeagley said district officials grew concerned about students and staff returning after the Christmas break as the omicron variant became more prevalent and families gathered to celebrate.
"There was a lot of uncertainty (over the break)," he said. "We felt it was a safe decision to require it for the first two weeks. At the end of the day, our goal is to keep schools open and safe for all our children."
Canton Local was one of 28 Ohio school districts that switched from optional mask policies to universal required masking since winter break, according to data from the Ohio Department of Education. Since December, the number of districts requiring all or some of their students to wear masks has increased by 15.5%.
Louisville Local and Green Local in Summit County also required masks after the break. Canton City Schools and Alliance City Schools have required students to mask up since the start of the school year. The remainder of the county's school districts has a mask optional policy.
During the first two weeks of the year, Canton Local evaluated its decision reaching out to neighboring districts.
What Yeagley found was the district's COVID cases were the same as similar-sized districts that did not require makes. As of Friday, district-wide there were 49 positive cases.
"We absolutely had COVID cases," he said noting many of the cases were reported when class was back in session. "We did not see a dramatic drop, but it was the right and safe thing to do."
The ultimate goal was to ensure safe, in-person instruction, Yeagley added.
Staying in school
Across the state, the move back to masks comes after both Ohio's governor and the heads of Ohio's children's hospitals urged schools to resume masking for now. COVID-19 cases are rising rapidly, and particularly in children.
The state reported more Ohio children were diagnosed with COVID-19 in December than in any other month since the start of the pandemic.
"We know that masks work and are effective at slowing the spread of this virus," Ohio hospital leaders wrote in a late December letter to school districts across the state. "The best way to keep kids in school is to slow the spread of the virus. The best ways to slow the spread of the virus are to get vaccinated and wear a mask.
"Even students who are asymptomatic or who have relatively mild symptoms have the ability to spread the virus to others."
A fall study conducted through Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center showed COVID-19 cases and quarantines were higher in schools with optional masking protocols than those with universal mask mandates.
Stark districts have seen a rise in cases in both their students and staff. Last week, Canton City's Crenshaw Middle School closed one day due to a staff shortage.
Stark County Educational Service Center Superintendent Joe Chaddock said just like the private sector, the schools are suffering from a shortage of staff.
From bus drivers to cafeteria cooks to teachers, districts across the county are seeking help. Many have boosted their substitute pay rates hoping to draw more candidates.
The educational service center, which maintains the list of licensed substitute teachers for local school districts, had roughly 800 substitute teachers in 2019. Now it has about 350.
"All of our schools are open," Chaddock said. "I think our people are doing a great job and we need to stay open, however, that happens. Our kids need to be in school. Remote learning is not a good option."
Canton Local has faced staff shortages. There have been situations when the district curriculum director covered a class and other staff members stepped in to fill a vacancy, he said.
"We've had people step up and we are able to safely keeping our kids in school," Yeagley said, adding they are training at least two administrators to be substitute bus drivers. "We are trying to be proactive. We continue to bring in additional permanent subs. We continue to look at our needs to provide as much support as we can for our students."
'We are doing a pretty good job keeping our doors open.'
Northwest Superintendent Shawn Braman said he sees about half of his students wearing masks despite it not being required by the district.
The district's number of positive cases has begun to creep up, but it isn't enough for them to go back to masks.
"We have this conversation daily," Braman said. "We see the news and the numbers throughout the state. We are doing a pretty good job keeping our doors open. We still strongly recommend people wear masks and people are doing that."
They continue to implement social distancing, cleaning procedures and reminding students and staff to wash their hands. The district has installed air purifiers and other mechanisms to improve air quality.
"We talk daily and if we need to make adjustments, we will," Braman said. "We're staying on top of it and keeping students and staff as safe as we can."
It's a calamity
While some districts across the state have responded to the surge in COVID-19 cases by going virtual or closing with the use of calamity days, Stark County schools have remained open.
As of Thursday, 31 schools in Ohio were fully remote. Since before the break, the number of districts offering fully in-person learning has decreased by 7.8%, according to data provided by the Ohio Department of Education.
Perry Local Schools Superintendent Scott Beatty told board members Thursday it is becoming more difficult to track the numbers as it relates to COVID.
"We have done a very good job of keeping track of cases and quarantines and masking but we have a high number of absences and we can only attribute a certain percentage to COVID," Beatty said. "We are seeing other illnesses unrelated to COVID. The only certainty is our attendance of both staff and students has been impacted by health issues."
Like other districts, Perry is facing issues with staffing.
What's best for the students and their academic growth is in-person instruction, Beatty explained.
If at any point the district doesn't have enough personnel or a high number of students are ill, the district will use a calamity day, he said.
"Like in the past if we reach our allotted days, we'll make them up," he said. "It's very important for our kids to be in school, but also to be safe and healthy. Anything we can do to provide consistency for our students and families. The less adjustments we have to make to our mode of instruction, our schedule and calendar the better for these kids who need some normalcy."
Right now, Beatty and his counterparts across the county are taking it one day at a time.
"I'm not a medical professional but what we saw was masking was working," he said. "What we are seeing now, the vaccinated, double vaccinated ... people are still getting the virus. To what severity, I don't know but right now it is so contagious."
At this point, Beatty said people have to do what they feel is in their best interest to navigate through the pandemic.
"People have their choices," he said. "I think everybody has been impacted in one way or another (by COVID). They have been. They have lost loved ones. We all have a better understanding of the reality of this illness."
Cincinnati Enquirer staff writer Madeline Mitchell contributed to this report.
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This article originally appeared on The Independent: Majority of Stark school districts remain unmasked