BOARDMAN — Nick Bruno is a respiratory therapist at a local hospital and one of the few pro-mask parents who spoke during Tuesday's Boardman Local Schools board of education meeting.
"I have worked with patients since the beginning of this pandemic," he said. "I have helped them as they gasped for air when they first come to our emergency room. As they lay in bed in the ICU too short of breath to eat, they are alone and terrified. I have seen many wheeled to the morgue."
"I could tell you nightmare stories of what I have seen, but suffice it to say, I would not wish it on my worst enemy."
He believes slowing the spread of COVID-19 in the community includes school children masking up. He credits wearing a mask with his ability to avoid COVID-19, despite being surrounded by it at work.
When public comment wrapped up, an anti-mask parent approached Bruno to tell him he wasn't invited to the meeting. She pulled up a flyer from a Boardman anti-mask group, the Boardman Ohio Parents Organization, on her phone to make her point the meeting was only for people who disagreed with the district's decision to require masks for 20 days.
However, none of that was true.
Per the Ohio Open Meetings Act, if a public body — village councils, forest boards, school boards — wants to meet to discuss or vote on public business, the meeting must be open to the public. Public meetings must be announced in the news media. Furthermore, if a quorum of a public body's members are in the same place, that also constitutes a public meeting.
Many who spoke at Monday's meeting produced unfactual or debunked scientific claims about COVID-19 prevention.
A mother of six claimed vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc and elderberry are more effective in preventing COVID-19 than masks. Another parent of four claimed children are more likely to contract respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, by wearing a mask.
During a news conference last week, Dr. Michael Forbes, chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Akron Children's Hospital, said mask usage this past winter "almost eliminated RSV."
But the state is now experiencing a summer surge.
"Mask-wearing significantly reduces the risk of spreading respiratory viruses," state health department Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said. "When the masks came off, people started getting sick again."
Parents repeatedly cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistic that 313 children have died of COVID-19.
"There's 75 million school-aged children in America, and we only lost 400 of them," said Doug Reed, pastor at Bridge of Hope Church in Youngstown.
Meanwhile, doctors have been sounding the alarm in recent weeks about the delta variant's effect on children.
The Columbus Dispatch on Monday reported at least 20 children were hospitalized with COVID-19 at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus. That's up from 12 last week.
At least five children were in the hospital's intensive care unit and two were on ventilators as of Monday. One of the two children on ventilators has no underlying conditions, said Dr. Rustin Morse, the hospital's chief medical officer.
Of the nearly 20 people who spoke at the meeting, only three advocated for the use of masks at school.
One of them was recently retired high school principal Cindy Fernback, who got choked up when she chronicled the struggles she faced in keeping Boardman High School open last year.
"There were many times last year when I felt defeated, like I was standing on the deck of a sinking ship, quarantining hundreds of students and dozens of staff. Those numbers are not exaggerations. We would juggle teacher coverages to make sure we had adults in classes to keep the doors open," she said.
She paused to compose herself.
"Many times, I went over to Mr. Saxton's office and I tossed myself into a seat and I told him I didn't think we could keep the building open any longer. Every time, and there were many times, he listened, he asked insightful questions. He offered support. Even offered to teach classes himself to keep the building open, because that was his goal. That's what was best for our kids and school family."
Given the change in quarantine rules, universal masking would drastically cut down on the number of required quarantines.
If masks are not mandated, "the school will likely shut down," she said.
"Do the educators like the masks? Absolutely not. We just know what needs to be done right now to open and keep open our schools."
Disagreeing parents didn't address the quarantine requirement issue and instead insisted their children shouldn't have to wear masks, because they're not "at-risk."
"Teachers are the only ones in the classroom that are at-risk," said Boardman parent Dwight McMurray. "Not to sound insensitive, but if masks work and [teachers] have had their immunizations, why are your teachers at risk at all?"
No decisions were made about the future of the policy Tuesday. The issue will be raised at the next board meeting on Sept. 27.