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Poland, Newton Falls reverse course on masking

"One thing we're all for is keeping kids in school, and we're doing a lousy job at that," said Poland Superintendent Craig Hockenberry.
Poland Local Schools Superintendent Craig Hockenberry (photo provided)

YOUNGSTOWN — Two more local districts are revisiting mask mandates as COVID-19 cases spike across the Valley. 

Six days into Poland Local School District's school year, 19 cases among students — 15 from the high school — and one case among staff left 99 high school students in quarantine. That's more than 10 percent of the school population.  

Previously — as a compromise to vehemently anti-mask parents — the Poland school board had mandated masks for only students in kindergarten to sixth grade, since older children are eligible to get the vaccine. 

As cases piled up, the district's new Superintendent Craig Hockenberry made the call. 

"I issued a mask mandate. I authorized the board to do it," he said. "I basically told them, 'I'm not bringing this back to you. You've gotta let me make this decision and we need to make it on the ground, because I can't wait until another board meeting.'"

Similarly, the Newton Falls Exempted Village Schools also reversed course and is now mandating masks for their students after one COVID-19 case led to 10 to 15 students in quarantine.

News of the Poland policy change comes two weeks after a raucous school board meeting in which parents pledged to sent their elementary school children to school without a mask, in defiance of the mandate. Most students complied, officials said.

Since then, COVID-19 spread spurred by the delta variant has gotten worse. 

On Aug. 23, Ohio reported 2,775 new COVID-19 cases, including 80 in the Valley, and 136 new hospitalizations. On Wednesday, Ohio reported 6,823 new COVID-19 cases, including 259 in the Valley, and 457 new hospitalizations.

"Like I was telling people before, whether you're for masks or against masks — that's the great American debate right now in schools — but one thing we're all for is keeping kids in school, and we're doing a lousy job at that," Hockenberry said. 

"So we have 100 healthy kids right now out of school for up to 10 days," he said. 

He's is optimistic the district can ease restrictions once the area weathers this delta spike. After all, students aren't having a problem following the rules. 

"All these parents are allegedly upset, but if you walk through our schools with us, kids are not mad," Hockenberry said. 

District leadership will reevaluate the mandate at the next school board meeting on Sept. 20. 

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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