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How Poland's new superintendent is handling the community's vicious mask debate

Craig Hockenberry arrived as the district mask debate reached a fever pitch. He was surprised to hear from about as many pro-maskers as anti-maskers.

POLAND — Poland Local Schools' new Superintendent Craig Hockenberry hasn't had an easy transition to his new job. 

He officially started Aug. 2, the day after the state's deadline for districts' decision on whether to offer remote schooling.

Hockenberry's predecessor opted out. With more than 5,000 new COVID-19 cases in Ohio on Thursday, that's not looking like the best call. 

And then there was that school board meeting Monday — Hockenberry's first as superintendent. A mob of anti-mask parents showed up with their elementary-age children in tow to model some pretty troubling and anti-science behavior, like heckling a former health commissioner who signed up to speak. 

In a conversation with Mahoning Matters on Thursday, he said he was "very disappointed in the board meeting." He understands parents are passionate about the masking issue and notes, "nobody's wrong."

Despite the chaotic meeting in which board members failed to keep the crowd under control and despite rumors of a parent protest on the first day of school, Thursday morning was peaceful.

At about 7:45 a.m., masked teachers guided masked children off of buses and cheerfully asked them about their summers. Parents toting coffee walked their kids to school. 

“Today has been absolutely fantastic,” Hockenberry told Mahoning Matters at about 11 a.m. “The parents that were upset, at the end of the day, the kids still showed up with their masks on. The kids were less concerned about it than the adults were.”

House calls 

Hockenberry's hiring was approved at a school board meeting May 10. On May 11, he started receiving calls and emails from parents about the district's masking decision.

"I knew pretty early this was going to be an issue," he said. "The strategy was, 'OK, I've got the time. Let's listen to everybody.'"

Hockenberry sent an email to the entire Poland Schools community, included his cell phone number and invited parents to talk. 

At the time, Gov. Mike DeWine had indicated the decision on preventative measures like a mask mandate would be a local one, since the statewide order expired June 2. 

But COVID-19 was different in mid-May, too. 

With vaccine enthusiasm high and the delta variant months from taking hold in Ohio, the state was reporting about 500 cases per day, about one-tenth the total cases reported Thursday.

Despite the early summer optimism, Hockenberry took the concerns seriously and conducted almost 30 home visits (at which about a dozen parents would each gather), about 50 one-on-one in-person meetings and returned hundreds of emails from concerned parents.

Three groups formed: the passionately pro-mask; the passionately anti-mask; and the majority who would rather not wear masks but who would follow the rules. 

"I thought for sure it was going to be, pretty much everybody was anti-mask," he said. "After I started talking to everybody, the numbers grew to like several hundred were adamant about wearing masks. They didn't want to say anything, because they didn't want to be ridiculed."

The pro-mask parents "were just very data-driven," he said. "Like, 'Listen, my kid is sick. He's got leukemia.' Or, 'My daughter has an inhaler, and we're not through this.'"

When he removed the ambivalent group, "the community was 100 percent split," he said. 

Decision time

The calls and emails ratcheted up. Two petitions were circulating in the community with about the same number of signatures, Hockenberry said. 

"And then it all came to a head." 

The school board on Monday passed an amended mask rule 3-2 that required masks for children in kindergarten through sixth-grade for the next 20 days. 

Hockenberry is pleased with the compromise and grateful the school board took the full weight of the decision off his hands, especially just a few days into the job.

Only hours into the first day of the 2021-2022 school year, he already had a plan for evaluating the effectiveness of the mask rule. He plans to look at: school cases, community cases, cases in districts around the state and, perhaps most importantly, cases among staff.

"We can play school with 100 kids in the district. We can't play school if we don't have enough teachers," he said. 

Hockenberry will bring the data to the board but intends to avoid another scene like Monday.

Remote back up

One of the questions left unanswered by Monday's meeting was: If high school students are unvaccinated and unmasked, what will happen if they are forced to quarantine since the school is not offering a remote option?

"The first step is obviously if the kid's going to be out, we want to make sure that we give them the work that they need to complete," Hockenberry said.

As a more long-term solution — if, for example, an outbreak forces a school to go remote for a period — Poland has joined a community called the eGroup, which is a consortium of about a dozen school districts.

It will function as an online option for kids in the district. 

"But, for us, it comes down to this. How do we keep the kids safe and stop the spread all over the place?

"How do we keep people in school?" he said. "We have to keep kids in school.

"This is going to have such long-term effects on kids. We're going to have kindergartners who weren't able to go to preschool. They're going to be behind," Hockenberry said.

He added: "We're talking about learning slides that are going to be very difficult to recover from for years to come, so it doesn't matter how affluent families are and how much work they do. The kids need this."

The Poland Local Schools board of education meets again on Sept. 20 at 6 p.m.

Jess Hardin

About the Author: Jess Hardin

Jess Hardin is a reporter for Mahoning Matters. She grew up in Pittsburgh and last worked at The Vindicator. Jess graduated from Georgetown University.
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