With school vaccine mandates banned, lawmaker wants mask requirements outlawed, too

By: - July 19, 2021 12:40 am

State Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell. Photo from Ohio Senate website.

Ohio schools will soon be barred from mandating that students be vaccinated against COVID-19. A Republican state lawmaker wants to also prohibit schools from mandating students and others wear face masks.

Senate Bill 209, introduced by state Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, is unlikely to impact school districts’ decisions for the fall, as lawmakers are on break until after most schools return to class. But the bill reflects continued attempts from those in the Ohio General Assembly to block public mitigation efforts of a virus that has killed more than 20,000 Ohioans to date.

SB 209 would prohibit the state school board, the Ohio Department of Education or individual school districts’ boards of education from requiring anyone to wear facial coverings in a public education setting.

K-12 schools and universities would not be able to require masks for students, teachers, staff members or visitors. Masks would not be required for in-class learning, any school athletic event or other school function.

“An individual may choose to wear a facial covering but shall not be required to do so,” the bill states.

Such mandates could still come from outside the education system, as SB 209 notes that health departments retain the authority to take “action to prevent the spread of a communicable or contagious disease.”

A separate provision in SB 209 deals with mask mandates imposed by private businesses. The businesses would be able to require masks, but “shall post notice of the requirement in a conspicuous place.” The notice must “state that an exemption to the requirement exists for individuals that have a documented medical condition that contraindicates the wearing of a facial covering.”

Brenner helped to enact the recent law barring public schools from issuing vaccine mandates — a law that does not go into effect until mid-October.

Shortly before lawmakers recessed for the summer, Brenner added the amendment to an unrelated bill involving education for children with parents in the military.

The Republican supermajorities, which have been critical of public mandates throughout the duration of the pandemic, swiftly approved that bill.

Gov. Mike DeWine had pledged to veto any bill that would “discourage vaccination,” but nevertheless quietly signed it into law last week

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is seen at a coronavirus press conference in 2020. He had pledged to veto bills that discouraged vaccination. Photo courtesy The Ohio Channel.

A year ago, when Ohio districts weighed a return to in-person instruction for the 2020-2021 school year, Brenner argued such decisions should be made at a local level, not by the state government.

“Why would you not trust your local school boards and superintendents who know their schools districts the best, taking information from state and local health departments to be able to determine whether or not their local school districts should be open?” Brenner asked in June 2020.

The legislature has since taken away local decision-making regarding school vaccine mandates, and under Brenner’s SB 209, the same would be true for mask requirements.

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Tyler Buchanan
Tyler Buchanan

Tyler Buchanan is an award-winning journalist who has covered Ohio politics and government for the past decade. A Bellevue native and graduate of Bowling Green State University, he most recently spent 6 1/2 years as a reporter and editor of The Athens Messenger and Vinton-Jackson Courier newspapers. He is a member of the BG News Alumni Society Board and was a 2019 fellow in the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism.

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