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Ohio County Schools To Require Masks for at Least 30 Days

Ohio County Board of Education member David Croft makes a point during Monday’s board meeting as Superintendent Kim Miller listens. (Photo by Scott McCloskey)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correctly reflect that Jessica Powers, a parent who spoke before the Ohio County Board of Education, urged the board Monday to revise its COVID-19 quarantine rules for students. She did not speak in support of a mask mandate, as we initially reported in error.

WHEELING — Students and staff in Ohio County Schools now must wear a mask while in a school building or on a school bus — at least for the next 30 days.

Board of education members Monday night voted 4-1 to impose a mask mandate that starts today, and will be reviewed after a month. It is the hope of school officials that by that time the number of COVID cases in the schools that have been escalating in the schools in recent weeks will decrease.

Voting in favor of having students and staff wear masks were members Christine Carder, Molly Aderholt, Pete Chacalos and Grace Norton. Board President David Croft voted against the motion.

The meeting took place at Steenrod Elementary School.

Croft advised board members they had a duty to determine “what is constitutionally best for our kids.”

“As we looked at this at the last meeting, the goal was balancing your rights as a balance with …. wearing masks,” he explained. “There was an unintended result of the quarantining rules. It is simply not working.

“We are being strong-armed by our state government which says, OK, don’t have a mask policy — but we’re going to send so many of your kids home your education is going to be ineffective. That’s what is happening in our county as we speak.”

Carder was the only member to vote in favor of the masks when the board last voted on the issue Aug. 31. But the growing number of COVID cases in Ohio County Schools forced the board to revisit the issue.

Eight persons addressed the board at the Aug. 31 meeting, with six people speaking against a mask mandate.

The mood was different Monday night. Fourteen people signed up to speak before the board, with 12 of them urging members to revisit their prior vote and require staff and students to wear masks.

Following the delegations, Superintendent Kim Miller reiterated to the board her suggestion that board members vote for a mandate.

She explained current guidelines require students — healthy or not — who are exposed to a student with COVID to be quarantined if they are within 6 feet of the infected student if either one of the students isn’t wearing a mask.

Six feet of social distancing isn’t possible in Ohio County classrooms, Miller explained. If all students were required to wear masks, they could sit within 3 feet of each other without being quarantined in the event of a COVID infection.

Miller reported that as of Monday there were 141 reported COVID cases among students in Ohio County Schools, including eight staff members in the first 13 days of the school year.

There are 650 students quarantined throughout the school district, and about 20% of all students are absent daily, according to Miller.Wheeling Park HIgh School staff present at Monday’s meeting reported that presently about 40% of students there are not in the classrooms.

Chacalos said the school district’s current COVID plan was clearly not working.

“We agree that kids need to be in their classrooms with their teachers for their educational well-being,” he said. “Currently that is not being met, and we need to talk about their mental being, as well.

“If it takes a mask requirement to keep our students in the classroom, that is what this board must do.”

Norton said she was willing to go along with the feelings of the parents at the last meeting and not impose a mask mandate “to see how that worked.”

“It didn’t (work),” Norton said.

Aderholt said for her the real issue is the quarantine policy imposed by the state, and she would continue to work to change it.

“Quarantining healthy kids is bad policy,” she said. “It is not good for the kids based on the data we’ve seen over the past year.

“I don’t agree with masking small children in schools. I don’t think we know the harms. I don’t feel comfortable as a board member requiring parents of young children to mask their children when there has been no single study saying their children will be fine after covering their faces for the second year in a row. We don’t know that.”

Carder had predicted after the August 23 vote the board would reverse its decision. She said Monday night she had nothing to add.

Speaking before the board in favor of mask mandates were Kasie Chastain, Melonie Miller, Terry Phillips, Emily Trifaro, William Whorton, Denitra Nizami, Jack Doyle, Riley Bonar Carpenter, Jack Kaniecki, J.T. Thomas, Brittni Scott, Mark Hannah, Heidi Kossuth and Marsha Woods.

Jessica Powers asked the board to change the quarantine rules for students possibly exposed to another student with COVID-19, while Travis Young and Rhonda Hercules asked the board to allow the students and their families to choose whether they should wear masks.

At the conclusion of Monday’s meeting, Croft said he very much enjoyed so many people coming out to participate. He assured them the board members also care very much for their children, and want to make the best decisions.

“We are in a very imperfect environment right now,” he said. “We’ll stay nimble, and watch the numbers. Hopefully, in 30 days, this will be in the rear-view mirror.”

The board is next scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Sept. 27 at the board office, 2203 National Road, Elm Grove.

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