Lebanon City Schools board of education is meeting Wednesday night to discuss possible changes to its optional mask policy after more than 10% of the district's students were exposed to COVID-19 two weeks into school.
The potential for mass quarantines triggered anxiety among school leaders across the Cincinnati region earlier this summer as districts and school boards made masking decisions. Ohio's health guidance suggests students who are masked and/or vaccinated do not need to quarantine if exposed to another person with COVID-19 in the classroom. Unmasked, unvaccinated students must quarantine for at least seven days, in most cases.
Most teachers and parents agree that in-person instruction five days per week is best for students.
"Ohio's goal is to keep K-12 students in school, in-person five days a week," the health department's school guidelines state. "Students benefit cognitively, emotionally, and developmentally from in-person learning."
Lebanon isn't the only district in Ohio where illness and related quarantines have hit hard. In Highland County, the Fairfield Local School District will remain closed until Aug. 30 because 15% of the student body being absent due to illness. The 900-student district Monday cited COVID-19 along with RSV and bronchial infections as the cause of the absences.
Across Ohio, children account for one of every five COVID-19 cases, the highest proportion since the pandemic began. Warren County has the state's third-highest per capita rate of COVID-19 infections in children, Ohio Department of Health data as of Tuesday shows.
What's happening in Lebanon?
Students began returning to Lebanon City Schools in waves starting Wednesday, Aug. 11, according to the district's website. All students in grades 1-12 had returned to school buildings by Friday that week, and preschool and kindergarten students started on Tuesday, Aug. 17.
According to the district's COVID-19 dashboard, a total of 20 students and three staff members in the district were considered positive COVID-19 cases last week. That resulted in a total of 259 student quarantines for the week.
Those numbers have since more than doubled. Lebanon superintendent Isaac Seevers said there were 47 active cases of COVID-19 in the district Wednesday morning, with 569 students having been exposed. Some of the exposed students were vaccinated, Seevers said, in which case they would not need to quarantine.
There are approximately 5,500 students in the district, Seevers said. The district is currently "strongly encouraging" masks in school buildings.
"Our position has been that up to this point we're going to follow the data of what we're seeing locally," Seevers said. "We've been in school for a little over two weeks now. And we have what we now are seeing to be good data to drive a discussion and decision (about masks)."
On Monday, school board president Ryan Patterson announced a special board meeting to be held Wednesday at 6 p.m. The board will discuss current COVID-19 data and "recommend revisions to the current mask guidance," the meeting notice reads.
The board will likely vote on the mask policy Wednesday.
'It's the children who are suffering.'
Last year, thousands of Cincinnati students were sent home to quarantine as COVID-19 made its way through the community. Experts say transmissions of the virus happened more often outside of school settings than inside them, likely due to universal masking policies at schools.
"While everyone wants COVID to be over, unfortunately, it is not," said Dr. Robert Frenck, a pediatrician and director of Cincinnati Children Hospital Medical Center's Gamble Vaccine Research Center. "Since relaxing mask mandates in early June, we have seen increasing case numbers throughout the U.S. The increases in cases have occurred in all age ranges. Thus, measures to control viral spread for every age range are needed."
Frenck recommends vaccination against COVID-19 for people 12 and older, "because the vaccine is quite safe and incredibly effective," he said.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine says he will not implement a universal mask mandate for K-12 schools across the state, though he highly recommends school districts do so themselves to prevent further spread of the virus or further unnecessary missed instruction time for students.
“It’s the children who are suffering when schools shut down,” DeWine said during a news conference on Tuesday.
Many local school districts have pointed to the state's guidelines as a reason to instate universal mask policies, though the majority of Cincinnati area school districts have kept mask-wearing optional.
What to do after exposure
The following protocols are recommended if your child is exposed to COVID-19 at school, according to the state Health Department:
- If universal masking is in place, only those who tested positive for COVID-19 should stay home.
- If universal masking is not in place, vaccinated students and staff who are not masking can remain if they wear a mask and take a test in a few days.
- If universal masking is not in place, unvaccinated students and staff who are voluntarily masking can remain if they continue to wear a mask and take a test in a few days.
- Unvaccinated, unmasked students and staff must stay home for at least seven days.