Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, chief medical officer for the Ohio Department of Health, during a press conference on new school guidelines regarding COVID-19. Screenshot by Susan Tebben
The Ohio Department of Health said new COVID-19 guidance for schools as they plan for a new school year will include safety recommendations, but no mandate for mask-wearing, even for the unvaccinated.
In a press call on Monday, Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, chief medical officer for the ODH, said guidelines would be released on the state’s coronavirus-centered web page no later than Tuesday.
COVID-19 vaccines simply offer the best protection against COVID-19, followed by masks with layered safety measures like social distancing.
– Bruce Vanderhoff, chief medical officer for the Ohio Department of Health
The guidance, Vanderhoff said, focuses on three layers of protection for schools as they begin reopening post-summer break.
- Vaccinations for staff and eligible students
- Consistent mask-wearing by unvaccinated individuals indoors, and outdoors when social distancing isn’t possible
- Additional measures such as improved building ventilation, social distancing and hand-washing measures
The guidance does not include any requirements or enforcements, because the language stands as a “strong recommendation,” though they are backed by scientific studies, according to the ODH.
“While there are no mandates associated with this guidance, we believe that the recommendations we are issuing are essential to the health of Ohio’s youth, and the success of the coming school year,” Vanderhoff said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics updated their school-opening recommendations recently, encouraging a “layered approach” including mask-wearing for anyone older than age 2.
Dr. Patty Manning-Courtney, chief of staff at Cincinnati Children’s, also participated in the press call, and said much of the safety measures are not up to the children, especially those younger than 12 who aren’t eligible for the vaccine.
“I don’t want to see the day where somebody under age 12 was infected because someone in their life chose not to be vaccinated or chose not to wear a mask,” Manning-Courtney said. “That would be a sad day.”
As for returning children to school with mask recommendations, the doctors said children who learned to wear a mask last year can easily be taught to wear them again, with the reminder that they are protecting friends and teachers along the way.
“I think children are very malleable and much more adaptable than us adults sometimes. I think it’s how you present it to them,” said Dr. Shefali Mahesh, medical staff president and associate chair for the department of pediatrics at Akron Children’s Hospital.
Mahesh said she’s been impressed at the motivational impact going back to school has had on her patients and her own children. She’s also chosen to rephrase the pandemic as one of the many “vaccine preventable” diseases in existence.
“To me that’s very powerful, because we’ve seen the impact that vaccinations have had in preventing so many long-term problems, from measles and polio and things like that,” Mahesh said.
Vanderhoff wouldn’t comment on the potential impact of legislation recently signed into law by Gov. Mike DeWine that bans any requirement for vaccines without full FDA approval (which would include the COVID-19 vaccine, as it only has emergency approval currently) by K-12 schools and colleges.
“Speculating about what could happen if people choose not to apply our recommendations is really beyond my role,” Vanderhoff said.
DeWine was more resolute during an unrelated Monday press conference, when asked about mask mandates in schools.
“I do not believe I have the ability today to mandate that,” DeWine said.
He added that there is no “appetite” for a mask mandate in the state.
“It is clear that we will need to let this decision be made by the parents and this decision be made by the schools,” DeWine said.
Some schools across the state have instituted their own mask regulations, including Columbus City Schools and several in Northeast Ohio.
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