Legislator: If schools don’t open this fall, “real chaos” will ensue

Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, testifies on a bill to allow school districts to make the decision in reopening this fall. Screenshot from the Ohio Channel

In arguing that schools should be able to reopen on their own terms in the fall, a Republican legislator said the state health director shouldn’t be a part of that decision.

State Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, introduced a bill to the Senate Education Committee that would give authority to local school districts — public, private and home-schooled — on deciding when they would reopen for the 2020-2021 school year, and the precautions put in place to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

The bill would also prohibit “other public officials” from closing the schools.

“I think if the schools don’t by and large open up this fall, we’re going to have some real chaos on our hands,” Huffman told the education committee. “It’s going to be a dramatic problem.”

The sponsor said he brought the legislation based on input from school districts in his constituency, who brought concerns that a blanket rule for state schools would not take into account the uniqueness of Ohio’s school districts.

“In some districts…some parents are saying if my child has to wear a mask when they go to school, I’m not sending them to school,” Huffman said. “In other school districts, you may have parents who say if every kid isn’t wearing a mask, I’m not sending my kid to school.”

Huffman said the impact of safety precautions on individual school district populations “can not be managed by a central government authority here in Columbus.”

Committee member Sen. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, said the level of authority in the bill concerned her, and that elected members of school boards’ decisions could have the effect of protesting public health orders and taking risks.

“Quite frankly, some people don’t even believe the pandemic exists,” Fedor said. “I’m concerned about that balance of authority and making sure that we have enough layers of accountability where health is a priority.”

Huffman said it is important that the government is big enough to protect its constituents, but “not so big that it can control what people do,” allowing local governments and individuals to make their own decisions.

“This (Ohio Department of Health) director, or any health director, or any director of any department, does not have the staff or the acumen…to decide how Minster Schools should open up in Minster, Ohio,” Huffman said. “They don’t know anything about that.”

At the beginning of June, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said schools planned to open for the fall but that starting dates would be up the local school boards. He also said “broad reopening guidelines” would be issued related to health precautions.

Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton stepped down from her position Thursday. While she enjoyed broad public support, she was also subject to intense criticism both from Ohio Statehouse Republicans and in right wing online circles and public protests that sometimes occurred on the front lawn of her home.