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‘We’re strongly recommending to wear masks.' Health officials, faculty try to sway YSU administrators

“I think the fact that we have to have a protest outside Tod Hall to say, ‘Hey, do a basic safety requirement,’ is kind of ridiculous," said Michael Factor, an incoming YSU senior who joined a protest on campus Friday.

YOUNGSTOWN — Despite a “productive” meeting between city health officials and Youngstown State administrators on the university’s decision not to require masks or COVID-19 vaccines this fall semester, a recent law change means the university has the final say in setting health precautions.

A group of several dozen YSU faculty members, administrators and supporters protested around Tod Hall on Friday morning, calling for a “science-based approach” to infection control.

An hour prior, city Health Commissioner Erin Bishop met with administrators virtually to reiterate the latest federal guidance that strongly encourages masking indoors. YSU’s union faculty members were denied representation at the meeting, the union says.

“In working with YSU, we’re strongly recommending to wear masks,” Bishop told Mahoning Matters on Friday. “They’re really taking the time to make the right decision. … They just wanted to do their due diligence; to kind of do some research on what’s happening.

“They do listen to what we’re telling them and they take what we say into consideration.”

But university leaders are ultimately still in the driver’s seat. With the passage of Senate Bill 22 in March — which survived Gov. Mike DeWine’s veto — state and local health officials no longer have unilateral power to impose masking or social distancing, quarantine those suspected of having COVID-19 or make other health orders.

The university this week surveyed its community members on the safety protocols they’d like to see on campus, and asked whether they’d been vaccinated or have considered getting the jab. More than 2,600 responded in less than three days, spokesperson Ron Cole said in a statement Friday.

“With the start of the fall semester still more than two weeks away, Youngstown State University remains engaged in continuous review of our COVID-19 protocols and in making adjustments when necessary,” the statement reads.

“With recent concerns regarding masking on campus for the start of the fall semester, the university is in the process of gathering more information and reviewing our protocols concerning face coverings.”

Any policy changes will be announced on the university's website.

Bishop added the state has not released any specific COVID-19 guidance relating to universities, so the city’s health district based its recommendations to YSU off Ohio’s guidance for K-12 schools.

“[YSU wants] to continue to gather the information, and we said, ‘Absolutely,’” she said. “If there’s new information that comes up from our end ... we’ll keep communication up with them.

“I was comfortable with what they’re trying to do.”

For K-12 schools, a joint statement Friday from the city health district and the Valley’s four other health departments recommends “universal masking policies for all students, teachers and staff regardless of their vaccination status.”

“Our fight against COVID-19 is not over,” the statement reads. “COVID-19 variants have emerged that increase the risk of transmission and result in worsening illness. The delta variant is rapidly becoming the dominant strain in Ohio. Because the delta variant spreads so quickly, these strategies to reduce transmission in schools are critically important to protect students, teachers, staff and communities.

“Due to the limitations Senate Bill 22 has placed on local public health, these are not orders but are data-driven and science-based recommendations, and they follow CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations. The final decision regarding masking is made by the governing body of each district.”

‘Mandate masks in your class!’

A group of about 50 YSU faculty and student protesters marched around Tod Hall on Friday morning holding signs reading “Follow the science! Wear the mask!” and “Do no harm,” and at one point chanting “mandate masks in your class!”

The turnout “shows that faculty are committed to a safe return to classes under the safest conditions possible for ourselves and students,” Mark Vopat, spokesperson for the Ohio Education Association’s YSU membership, is quoted in a news release.

About 11,000 students will soon descend on campus for the start of fall semester on Aug. 30, he said.

Though the university has developed a COVID-19 mitigation plan, “this policy is misinformed and it’s an outlier” among nearly every other Ohio university requiring masks, Vopat said. Educators instead want a “science-based approach.”

According to the university’s website, administrators plan to test wastewater from residential buildings to spot outbreaks before they happen. Coronavirus RNA can be found in fecal matter well before symptoms set in, officials have said. Its other sampling efforts could determine how much coronavirus is lingering in the air or on surfaces.

The university has also installed handwashing and sanitizer stations and upgraded its ventilation systems to better circulate and filter air, according to the website. But those ventilation systems only kick on with the thermostat, Vopat said, and according to guidelines, “that’s not sufficient for protecting against COVID.” Rather, they’d need to be constantly running, he said.

With the university’s classroom sizes, Vopat said it’s rare to get 6 feet or even 3 feet away from students. Many of those classrooms don’t have windows — and are ventilated only by the temperature-set HVAC system — and only one door, he said.

Professors can ask their students to mask up but can’t compel them to do it, one student told Mahoning Matters.

Vopat said many colleagues are concerned about teaching from just a few feet away in “a small, poorly ventilated room.”

“I’ve heard from two individuals … one said their doctor said they are immunocompromised and they need to make sure these protocols are in place for them,” he said. “I have someone else who’s both immunocompromised and has a spouse that’s immunocompromised.

“We know vaccination rates of students are pretty low. .... If they’re not getting vaccinated given 3,000 cases a day in Ohio, I can’t imagine they’re going to care.”

In Mahoning County, only about 31 percent of residents age 20 to 29 had been fully vaccinated as of Friday, according to the Ohio Department of Health. In Trumbull County, that’s a little less than 28 percent. And in Columbiana County, it’s only about 21 percent.

The youngest age group reported in the state’s data includes all Ohioans age 19 and younger. Currently, only those age 12 and older are authorized to receive the Pfizer-made vaccine. Statewide, 5.2 million Ohioans age 18 and older have completed their vaccine series, or about 57 percent.

The university reported 485 positive coronavirus tests among students during its 2020 fall and winter semesters, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Michael Factor, an incoming YSU senior who joined the protest Friday, said he thinks if the university would lay out a masking policy, the student body would follow it.

“I was definitely hopeful the university was going to do the bare minimum with requiring masks,” he told Mahoning Matters. “I think the fact that we have to have a protest outside Tod Hall to say, ‘Hey, do a basic safety requirement,’ is kind of ridiculous.

“Hopefully they listen. If you’re a student at YSU, definitely support your faculty,” Factor said. “If the university does not require masks and [professors] say, ‘I think you should all be wearing masks in my classroom,’ respect that. It’s a pretty simple thing to do.”

Justin Dennis

About the Author: Justin Dennis

Justin Dennis has been on the beat since 2011, covering crime, courts and public education. Dennis grew up in Poland and Salem and studied journalism and communications at Cleveland State University and University of Pittsburgh.
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