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MASKS & VALLEY SCHOOLS | From rage to petitions to ... 'productive conversations?'

This year, determining COVID-19 safety measures is up to Ohio school districts. Here in the Valley, some districts are managing the decisions — and their consequences — better than others.

YOUNGSTOWN — While qualifying her "no" vote on a schoolwide mask mandate for kindergartners through sixth-graders, Poland School Board Vice President Annie Colucci cited, "A total of seven children in the entire state of Ohio between the ages of zero and 19 have died from COVID."

What she could not cite, after an evening in which the board tried and mostly failed to maintain order over shouting parents, includes: How many other children got sick from the pandemic? How many children were hospitalized in the last 17 months? How many children lost family members to COVID-19? How many children have lingering effects of COVID-19? And even, how many carried the disease back to their parents or grandparents?

Colucci's choice to isolate one statistic and ignore a myriad of other global pandemic concerns encapsulates the central thesis in the ongoing debate about mask mandates taking place at school board meetings across the country. 

"While I do agree that kids are thankfully not as affected by the pandemic as many unfortunate adults are, the fact is that some of have been. Some of them have died from it. And I will take it a step further, and say as few of those as there may have been, for as long as it's in our control as adults, we should make it zero," one parent attending Monday night's meeting observed before the vote. 

In the end, the Poland School Board voted to mandate masks for K-6 for the first 20 days of school that begins on Thursday.

Poland circus

For the most part, the parade of speakers at Monday's school board meeting resembled a living Facebook comments section. Many parents exhibited behavior that would have caused their children to earn detentions during the school day.

Many opinions would have flunked science class. One parent said he believes eating healthy and exercising protects people from COVID-19. Another compared masking to human experimentation and "investigational" medicine, citing the Nuremberg Code. 

One attendee held a sign reading "Lions not sheep."

A few braved being shouted down to voice support for a mandated mask proposal.

Former Mahoning County Health Commissioner Pat Sweeney — who was heckled for being a district grandparent instead of having her own kids at Poland — provided insight into the state of delta spread in the area, noting children now make up 18 percent of COVID-19 cases.  

By the end of the meeting, the board "compromised" with heckling parents and changed its original proposed mask mandate to only require face coverings for students in sixth grade and younger for the next 20 days.

The motion passed 3-2. 

Many were not assuaged by the compromise. One mask opponent repeatedly yelled, "Shame on you!" as he exited the room. 

Board Vice President Troy Polis — who said he was in favor of "no mandate," but thought it wouldn't pass — proposed the amendment, arguing older students didn't need to wear masks, because they are eligible to get vaccinated. 

In the absence of a mask rule for older students, those exposed to COVID-19 who are unmasked and unvaccinated will be required to quarantine.

Poland is not offering a remote schooling option; schools were required to make this decision by Aug. 1.

Boardman and Youngstown

The quarantine guidance for schools is part of the reason Boardman Local Schools elected to impose a mask rule, said Superintendent Tim Saxton.

"That was a big push for us, when we started to digest that a little bit," he said, "because we have hundreds of kids sitting at home last year who were not sick but because of the quarantine rules, had to quarantine. So, to us, that was a game-changer."

The decision to require masks was also influenced by guidance from local health departments and the fact that three teachers recently tested positive for COVID-19, Saxton said. 

Boardman Local Schools and Youngstown City Schools avoided the scene on display Monday in Poland and announced mask rules — for all students and staff — in the last week with phone calls and emails to parents. 

Boardman announced the decision Friday via a video posted to YouTube. Students return to school Aug. 30. 

The response has been "mixed," Saxton said. "I get a lot of 'Thank-yous,' and I get a lot of 'How dare you?' So, I'd say it's pretty equal, because people are passionate on both sides."

Since the announcement was made, Saxton has reached out to upset parents to explain the reasoning for the decision, noting, talking on the phone or in person is "the best, most productive conversation you're going to have."

"I think deep down inside all people are good people, and we sit down and talk heart to heart and eye to eye, we may leave agreeing to disagree, but I've always found that to be a positive experience. 

For parents who can't get behind the rule, the district is offering a remote learning option, called Spartan Academy. 


Last week, Canfield Local Schools released its return to school plan; masks are optional. 

About 50 parents attended Wednesday's school board meeting, WFMJ reported; only one spoke in favor of a mask mandate. 

But that doesn't capture all pro-mask parents in the district. 

Since the plan was released, parents concerned about the lack of mask rule have circulated a petition requesting mandatory masking "until children under 12 can be fully vaccinated."

The petition cites the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and troubling news of outbreaks in states without mask mandates in schools. 

As of Monday night, it had 184 signatures. 

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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