Gov. Mike DeWine has announced a series of health guidelines for Ohio's K-12 schools when they reopen in the fall.
Teachers and other school personnel must wear masks when the new school year begin. Some teachers would be allowed to use face shields if masks are impractical or would impede instruction, such as for students with disabilities.
DeWine is also recommending that students in 3rd grade and above should also wear face coverings, unless a child has a health condition or physical limitation that would make wearing a mask unsafe.
The governor says children in kindergarten through 5th grade would also be allowed to wear masks if they can do so safely.
DeWine's guidelines require school officials to vigilantly assess all students and staff for COVID-19 symptoms and require them to conduct regular temperature checks, enforce social distancing of at least six feet in all school areas, including classrooms, bathrooms, dropoff, pickup and buses.
All schools must develop their own face-covering policy and thoroughly clean and sanitize school buildings. Areas that have a lot of foot traffic will be required to provide hand sanitizer.
One thing the state's guidelines won't tackle: how to balance in-person and remote learning. Many school districts have already announced plans to alternate between days in school and days at home. In Columbus, high schoolers will have entirely remote classes for at least the first part of the year.
DeWine says that schools are permitted to adapt the guidelines to their individual buildings.
"So balancing local control, state interest in protecting our kids, and making sure our kids get educated," DeWine said.
DeWine said the guidelines incorporated input from school officials and medical experts from across the state. They also include recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics highlighting the well-documented dangers linked to children being physically out of school for extended periods of time.
Those dangers include less access to healthy meals, the mandatory reporting by teachers and school staff of suspected child physical and sexual abuse, and access to social supports and regular mental health care.
“Mental health is such a big concern during these times,” Dr. Chris Peltier, president-elect of the Ohio chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said at the briefing. “I know that myself, as well as my partners and other colleagues across the state have seen a marked increase in patients that are presenting with concern for anxiety and depression since the quarantine and these factors, when severe, can lead to teen suicide attempts.”
At Thursday's briefing, DeWine said he’s not ruling out a statewide mandatory facemask order to slow the spread of COVID-19. The governor called the state’s growing coronavirus outbreak “a crisis,” citing exponential community spread in many counties.
“This should be a wakeup call to all of us that we're in the fight of our lives and we're literally fighting for lives. We're fighting for our future,” he says. “We're fighting for our ability to be able to expand our economy and grow our economy.”
The Ohio Department of Health reports 54,166 total COVID-19 cases statewide, and 2,903 total deaths.
The governor says he’s following the daily coronavirus data closely and would consider enacting a mandatory mask order should it become necessary. Many cities, including Columbus and Dayton, have issued mask mandates of their own.
For now, DeWine is calling on Ohio residents to remain vigilant as many businesses reopen and summer activities ramp up, urging them to follow “common sense” guidelines to help control the spread of the virus.
“Wear a mask. Keep a distance. Be careful. Be smart,” he says.
At the briefing, DeWine rolled out a new color-coded system designed to allow public health officials, business owners and residents to better track and more quickly respond to and contain localized outbreaks.
The Ohio Public Health Advisory Alert System ranks counties’ case rates at four levels of severity using seven indicators of community spread, including the number of new cases per capita, the proportion of cases not located in congregate settings, sustained increase in outpatient COVID-19-related hospital and emergency room visits and hospital admissions, and ICU bed occupancy.
Pointing to a map of the state’s counties, DeWine listed Franklin, Montgomery, Trumbull, Cuyahoga, Hamilton, Butler and Huron as among those with rapidly escalating spread of the virus.
Franklin County is seeing an “explosive” outbreak, with major clusters of new COVID-19 cases emerging in manufacturing businesses, housing complexes, child care settings and elsewhere.
“Outpatient visits have spiked and recent visits to the ER have more than doubled,” DeWine said, “so we're watching Franklin County very carefully.”
Under the state’s new alert system, Yellow Level 1 counties meet zero or one indicator showing active exposure and spread; Orange Level 2 counties meet two or three indicators of increased exposure and spread; Red Level 3 counties meet four or five indicators showing very high exposure and spread; Purple Level 4 counties meet six or seven indicators for severe exposure and spread.