Until Tuesday, as school districts across the state have worked to plan for a safe reopening this fall, Governor DeWine has not provided any mandates as to how schools choose to reopen; he has left the methods of reopening up to individual districts.
During his Tuesday afternoon COVID-19 update, however, DeWine announced all children returning to school in K-12 will be required to wear a mask while in school, with a few exceptions.
The exceptions to this mandate are:
- Children under the age of 2 years old
- Any child unable to remove the face covering without assistance
- A child with a significant behavioral/psychological issue undergoing treatment that is exacerbated by the use of a facial covering
- A child living with severe autism or with extreme developmental delay who may become agitated or anxious wearing a mask
- A child with a facial deformity that causes airway obstruction
"It's incumbent upon us to make the sea that we are all swimming in as safe as we can," said DeWine.
To help support schools, DeWine said the state, with help from FEMA, will distribute 2 million masks to districts throughout the state.
DeWine said a Tuesday morning conference call with the Ohio Children's Hospital Association and the Ohio chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics informed the decision; both organizations issued a joint letter recommending masks for all children who will be returning to school in person.
"The jury is back on the issue. There is a broad, broad, broad consensus among experts in this country that the way to protect teachers, the way to protect fellow students is for everyone to wear a mask," said DeWine.
Two variables will predominantly affect how the COVID-19 pandemic spreads within school districts: Community spread in that area and what happens within the school buildings. DeWine said school buildings and districts' enforcement of hand-washing, masks and social distancing will play a large part, but if the community spread in the area is high, the schools will also be likely to grapple with high degrees of spread.
DeWine cited high levels of community spread within several Ohio counties, and said that communities with a high level of COVID-19 spread will very likely have schools with a high degree of spread as well.
"The reality is, and what scientists continue to tell me...what I'm told is that the community spread in that community will be reflected in that school," he said. "It just makes common sense."
He acknowledged that younger children may need to take a break from the masks from time to time, but said he would leave that up to teachers and administrators; whether children can take masks off during recess or during other activities could be acceptable, he said, but he did not outline what those break times would need to involve or how they should be executed.
When asked by a reporter whether he expected teachers to become "mask police" or risk a possible civil lawsuit if a child in their classroom became ill, DeWine said he expects the order to be followed, but not that police or administration should need to hover in classrooms or look over teachers' shoulders to ensure the mandate is being followed.
"Without a vaccine, we are limited in the ways that we can protect the people of the state of Ohio," he said. "The other way is not to go back to school at all, and some schools are making that choice and they're doing that based on all of the evidence and they're making that decision. But the schools that have decided to go back, for them to have a chance -- a fighting chance of being able to stay open, with community spread all throughout this state -- is the unanimous verdict of every expert, every person in the medical field, that wearing a mask provides that added protection."
DeWine also said that social distancing, stringent hand-washing and disinfecting still need to be rigorously enforced during school, citing that masks are one layer of protection that, when applied with many other layers of protection, can create a much safer environment that prevents the spread of COVID-19.
The governor was also asked whether alternative forms of facial coverings, like bandannas or face shields, could be used instead of traditional face masks. He did not have a direct answer, but stated that anything is better than nothing. He said scientists and experts have said face shields are not as effective as masks at stopping the spread of COVID-19, but he conceded that for some individuals who may be exceptions to masks, they may be a more appropriate option.
You can watch the governor's full announcement below: