​​​​COLUMBUS, Ohio — As COVID-19 cases begin to decline, some Ohio schools districts are switching to mask-optional policies, despite state health officials reiterating their position this week that unvaccinated students should be masked.

What You Need To Know

  • As cases decline, some districts are reconsidering mask policies

  • Health officials are continuing to ask for masking in schools 

  • The state is also exploring options to reduce student quarantines

In several districts, school officials said “test-and-stay” protocols are helping them avoid quarantines in the mask-optional setting. These districts have an option for exposed students to remain in school if they agree to wear masks and test negative.

Superintendents said the change makes it more feasible to operate without mask mandates amid community spread of COVID-19 that remains significant in Ohio even though cases have subsided somewhat in the past four weeks. The Ohio Department of Health is reporting a seven-day average of 4,529 cases, a 37.7% decline from the recent peak in mid-September. 

According to an Ohio Department of Education update on Friday, 318 of 609 school districts have mask-optional policies for all of their students. 

In Medina County, the Cloverleaf School District began optional masking on Monday. In a letter to families, Superintendent Daryl Kubilus explained that the board approved the change because the situation with COVID-19 had improved.

“Considering the downward trend of the Delta variant in our state, our county, and our schools, isolations/quarantines have dropped dramatically here at Cloverleaf,” she said in a letter. 

Kubilus informed families that students who are identified as a close contact have the option to attend school wearing a mask for the duration of the quarantine period, in accordance with a new policy from the Medina County Health Department. 

Northeastern Local Schools in Springfield lifted its mask requirement at the start of the week, Superintendent John Kronour announced, citing an improved outlook with the virus locally.

“We have been monitoring our numbers over the past month and have seen a decrease in our quarantines and positive cases. Additionally, local health officials are optimistic that we are beginning to see the signs of a downward trend in cases in Clark County,” Kronour said. 

Also in Springfield, Clark-Shawnee Schools and Northwestern Local Schools ended mask requirements this week.

Elsewhere in Ohio, Minford Local Schools in Scioto County stopped requiring masks on Monday and Dover City Schools in Tuscarawas County lifted its mandate on Wednesday. 

COVID-19 cases in Ohio districts have declined in recent weeks. In an update Thursday, the state reported 4,796 new cases in schools, which shows a downward trend from a peak of 8,524 weekly cases last month.

Ohio Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said during a news conference Thursday that he continues to recommend masking for students.

He was joined by Dr. Adam Mezoff, chief medical officer at Dayton Children’s Hospital, who said an analysis of COVID-19 in local schools showed that cases have decreased by 67% in recent weeks in schools requiring masks, while cases have increased by 30% in schools without mandatory masks.

Vanderhoff said Ohio is continuing to examine a pilot program of the test-and-stay policy, which the health department is coordinating with a number of schools in Warren County. He said initial data is looking good, which indicates that the policy could be scaled to other parts of the state in the future.

Fewer than 10 students in the county who were identified as close contacts and went through the test-and-stay option have ultimately tested positive, Lebanon City Schools Superintendent Isaac Seevers said in an interview. 

Seevers said Lebanon had 30 students participate in the pilot last week, and they all tested negative. The district went to a mask-optional policy on Sept. 27 after implementing a temporary mask requirement on Aug. 30 when 20% of students were quarantined, forcing officials to close school for several days.

The district’s early fall COVID-19 outbreak was disruptive because of the quarantines, but Seevers said he never felt that school was unsafe. 

“We were seeing mild, cold-like symptoms. A lot of them were confusing it with seasonal allergies. They had headaches, they had a runny nose, things like that. With the Delta variant we weren't seeing the high fevers, we weren't seeing the loss of taste and smell at the same rate as we were before. For us, our kids were getting it more mildly,” he said.

Seevers said the test-and-stay program makes it easier to have school without masks, because far fewer students are being quarantined.

“We think this puts us on the cutting edge and the forefront of how we learn to live with COVID as a society and as schools,” he said.

The biggest challenge for the state rolling out the policy to more districts will be the availability of testing, he said.

Mezoff said from the children’s hospital’s perspective, the surge doesn’t feel over at all. He said a concerning number of children are still becoming hospitalized in Ohio. 

“Children do get seriously ill with COVID,” he said. “Kids are getting very sick, maybe not in the numbers as adults.”

Some districts that intended for their mask mandates to be temporary are continuing to enforce masking for now. 

A member of the Lexington Local Schools board motioned Wednesday to end the Richland County district’s mask requirement, but the effort failed in a 2-2 vote. 

Olentangy Local Schools provided an update on its mask requirement this week. After informing families in August that masks would be required for at least the first nine weeks, Superintendent Mark Raiff said during a board meeting Tuesday that the district needs to extend the requirement. 

Raiff said COVID-19 cases are beginning to show downward trends in central Ohio, but he said masks continue to prevent quarantines and slow the spread. 

“The mask requirements in schools are helping us keep our cases down and keep our number of quarantined students down,” he said, asking the board to maintain its mask requirement. “I think the strategy is working.”