CLEVELAND, Ohio — With the fluid nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple Northeast Ohio school districts are taking a wait-and-see approach on whether they will require masks and adhere to past coronavirus protocols for the 2021-22 school year.
Ohio’s coronavirus public health orders were lifted Wednesday, except for nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Businesses and organizations can still require masks on their property, but the government no longer mandates face coverings.
But since schools have a few months until the next academic year, some superintendents are wary of nailing down policies too soon.
“I think probably the wisest thing for us to do is just sit back through the month of June and July,” Maple Heights Superintendent Charlie Keenan said. “See if there’s going to be any spikes, if there’s any new variants. Who knows what could happen? As we’ve learned through this past year, it’s very unpredictable. We’re hopeful that things head in the right direction and we can get back to school in a more normal manner, but I just think the wise thing to do is probably wait until probably sometime end of July and then see what the status of COVID is at that point and then make some decisions.”
Cleveland.com talked with 10 superintendents across Northeast Ohio to learn about what their districts’ masks policies and other coronavirus protocols would look like for the 2021-22 school year.
Avon Lake currently plans on not requiring masks for students and staff during the 2021-22 school year, said Superintendent Bob Scott. Students and staff who are unvaccinated will not have to wear masks, Scott said.
Scott said the district would meet with the Lorain County health department in August to gauge the COVID situation after the summer, but Avon Lake intends on returning to school “pretty much as normal as possible.”
The district plans to have in-person instruction five days a week, with a remote option only for high school students. Scott said if someone feels they need to wear a mask, the district wants them to feel comfortable doing so.
“And even our piece with people staying home if they’re sick,” Scott said. “We need people in school. We need kids in school. We need them to have good attendance. But I think we learned this year that again, especially in those November, December, January months, when the flu can really take a toll on lots of kids, that staying home for a day or two days is actually preferable. Let’s be honest and stay home.”
With masks optional, Avon Lake also will eliminate temperature checks, which it only did for visitors during the 2020-21 school year. Plexiglass barriers can be used depending on teachers’ and students’ preferences.
The district will still have some of its coronavirus policies in place, though. Scott said some additional cleaning would continue. It just may not be at the level it was during the height of the pandemic. Still, the district doesn’t plan on reverting to pre-pandemic cleaning.
“Part of this is not just necessarily because of COVID, but it’s because even when we get into flu season, we found out that a lot of these pieces really worked well,” Scott said. “So we’ll be using our misters and the way we cleaned during the evenings and nights and those things. We’ll have the hand sanitizer available for everybody.”
Scott said the district also plans to keep desks three feet apart for social distancing, reducing from six feet.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended in March that students stay at least three feet apart “in classrooms where mask use is universal — regardless of whether community transmission is low, moderate, substantial, or high.”
Beachwood’s board of education hasn’t approved a mask policy for next school year, but the board suspended the district’s current mask policy, effective Friday, Superintendent Bob Hardis said.
With that suspension, the district will test a temporary masking policy during the summer. The short-term policy requires employees doing summertime work or summer campers to show proof of vaccination to go unmasked on school property. If a person isn’t fully vaccinated or won’t show proof of vaccination, they will have to wear a mask.
Exceptions include runners using the outdoor track, which is open to the community, or anyone operating machinery where mask-wearing might not be ideal. People can still wear a mask if it makes them more comfortable, Hardis said.
Hardis said if the summer policy works, he would recommend that the board of education adopt a similar policy for the upcoming school year.
“The thought process here is that the CDC has stated pretty clearly that science is showing, research is showing that those who are fully vaccinated stand little to no chance of getting sick themselves and have little to no choice of spreading the virus to others,” Hardis said. “So the feeling is that if someone is fully vaccinated, that they are neither putting themselves in jeopardy or anyone else.”
Hardis said if the board approves the policy, the district could adjust it for each grade level. For younger children, the district will have to adapt as the vaccine age requirements change. Children must currently be at least 12 years old to receive a vaccine.
Beachwood doesn’t currently plan on requiring students and staff to do home temperature checks and submit health checklists. COVID-19 cleaning will remain, but the district will probably “be easing off” from the level of cleaning it did during the pandemic, Hardis said.
“We’ve added some things that are low maintenance, no toxicity. We’re not spraying chemicals that are toxic or anything else or damaging,” Hardis said. “So we put in place some protocols this year that frankly we want to keep now because they’re just good policy.”
Superintendent Andrea Celico hopes students and staff can go unmasked next school year. Still, the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus means Bedford is taking a wait-and-see approach to policies.
Celico said she thinks the district could have a clearer picture of what policy it’s leaning toward during the end of July or early August. Despite the uncertainty on masks, the district plans to return to in-person instruction five days a week.
“The masks are still sort of unknown,” Celico said. “There’s three or four months left before we come back, and a lot can happen, and that’s why we’ve been hesitant to really say one way or another. We’re waiting on vaccinations, for example. Are students in younger grades going to have that opportunity because that would change things, perhaps? So we’re just going to keep an eye on what happens.”
As for other coronavirus protocols, Celico said the district will still have its ionizing machines, touchless water fountains and hand sanitizer stations. But the district would likely eliminate plexiglass barriers, Celico said.
The district will also likely return to having two students per seat on the bus, but masks on buses may still be required since children will be close to each other, Celico said. Signage indicating one-way hallways could also change, and the district is still mulling whether that will continue.
Cleveland Metropolitan School District
The Cleveland Metropolitan school district plans to continue following current public health guidelines in its decision-making, said district spokeswoman Roseann Canfora.
“Right now, CMSD is focused on the upcoming launch of our Summer Learning Experience on June 7. Throughout the pandemic, CMSD has followed current public health guidelines in its decision-making and will continue to do so as we plan for fall,” Canfora said.
When it comes to removing or keeping the mask policy for the next school year, Darryle Torbert, spokesman for Euclid schools, said the school district is still in its planning phase.
“Our Euclid Schools are still planning how our August return to school will look, and we will be engaging our parents, students, and other stakeholders as we finalize plans,” Torbert said.
Torbert noted that the school district used federal money for several new safety measures over the past year, including installing thermal cameras to take temperatures of anyone entering buildings, and air ionization units, to help kill airborne pathogens.
“The cameras and air ionization units will remain for the upcoming year and beyond,” Torbert said.
He said that the school district would continue to prioritize student’s and staff’s safety and take guidelines from local health authorities.
“We will continue prioritizing safety and will also take recommendations by health authorities into consideration in crafting our plan,” Torbert said.
Superintendent Charlie Keenan wants to watch how the summer pans out before determining what to do with Maple Heights’ mask policy. Keenan said the district requires students and staff to wear masks for summer school, which will go through August.
“I guess what we’ve learned from this whole pandemic is that trying to plan something three months in advance without knowing what’s going to happen is usually a pretty difficult task,” Keenan said.
Keenan said regardless of whatever policy that’s in place, having a clean and safe environment will be critical. During the pandemic, the district used air scrubbers to help create cleaner air. The school might eliminate temperature checks depending on the state of the pandemic in July and August.
“We’re going to make sure that we have good safeguards in place that help us from preventing spread of any kind of disease or anything that would stop learning or prevent kids from being in school,” Keenan said.
As of this week, the North Olmsted school district will share its final decision about its mask policy and safety measures over the summer months once the school year is over, according to district spokeswoman Amy Rutledge.
For now, they will continue to follow the guidelines from local health officials in place.
“At this time, we don’t have a decision about the mask policy or any other safety measures. That will be discussed and determined over the summer months once the school year is over,” Rutledge said.
Parma schools spokeswoman Audrey Holtzman said while the district understands parents’ eagerness in wanting a plan regarding COVID procedures for the next school year, the district plans to wait until it’s closer to the school year to make any final decisions.
Holtzman said the history of shifting mandates makes it hard for the district to make long-term decisions.
“If we have learned anything from this year, it is that regulations, recommendations, and mandates can and will change vastly week to week,” Holtzman said. “With that said, we believe that making any decisions regarding mask-wearing in the school setting is premature.”
Holtzman said the district would share its plan with parents and students in August, allowing time to develop procedures to support families who need to adjust their learning format.
Rocky River schools will continue to implement face masks until the end of the school year, June 11, but will ultimately suspend them, making the choice optional for everyone next school year, according to district spokesman Greg Murphy.
“Per recommendations from Governor DeWine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Rocky River City School District (RRCSD) will continue to implement Board Policy 8454 (Face Masks and Face Shields) through the end of the school year on June 11, 2021,” Murphy said. “Effective June 12, 2021, RRCSD will suspend Board Policy 8454, and masks will be optional for all individuals.”
Murphy said the district would continue with safety protocols in buildings, including air filtration, cleaning, sanitizing and strong recommendations for proper handwashing.
As of now, Warrensville Heights students and staff will plan on continuing wearing masks next school year, said Superintendent Donald Jolly II.
“We don’t have a high vaccination rate of our students at this time,” Jolly said. “So since our students do not have a high vaccination rate, it’s in the best interest of all to continue with the mask mandate. In the event that changes, and we do end up with a higher percentage of students with the vaccinations, then we will revisit that mandate at that time.”
Jolly said he thinks temperature checks will continue at all buildings as a safety precaution and help give people a sense of comfort.
He added that the district would continue COVID-19 cleaning because “it ensures that everyone is safe.” Jolly said the district intends to keep its cleaning protocols after the pandemic is over. The policies could help curb the spread of seasonal viruses like the flu or any other viruses that come.
“I don’t see any changes,” Jolly said. “I mean, there will be another virus that comes, and we can prevent it from spreading.”