LOGAN – Emotions ran high Wednesday afternoon when around 100 citizens showed up to a last-minute emergency meeting of the Logan-Hocking Local Board of Education. With classes set to start the next day for grades one through five, seven, nine and 12, the last-minute meeting was called to discuss adjustments to the district’s plans for keeping students and staff safe from COVID-19.

Supt. Monte Bainter explained that he decided to call the meeting after Gov. Mike DeWine on Tuesday pleaded publicly with school districts to at least consider requiring students to wear masks in school for the next few weeks. DeWine no longer has the ability to impose statewide mask mandates.

Bainter noted that the district has recently had some students and staffers test positive for COVID, and that numbers in the county, after dropping, have gone back up, putting it into “high incidence” status according to CDC criteria. Given this apparent trend, and the pressure from the state on school districts to tighten precautions, Bainter said he felt it was important to get the board together and discuss the issue publicly.

In practical terms, the only outcome of Wednesday’s meeting was that the board authorized Bainter to move the district up one notch in its “tiered” approach to protecting against the virus, if the number of quarantined students goes up significantly.

Bainter indicated that if that number hits 15% of students in any school building, or 10% of staff, that site will be moved up from tier one status (masks encouraged for the non-vaccinated and those with pre-existing health conditions, but not required) to tier two (students required to wear a mask when they are not in an assigned seat). The district’s policy also allows for tiers three, which would require masks indoors, and four, which would be a return to remote learning such as the district had to institute last year. This last option, Bainter said, is one he wants to avoid at all costs.

“I don’t ever want to have to go to remote learning again,” he declared. “It’s not what’s best for our kids.” But while the district is opening back up at tier one, Bainter asked, “Is that going to be enough down the road if cases keep escalating?”

Before the board vote was taken, over a dozen citizens in attendance were able to ask questions and voice concerns during a public participation segment. Strong support for mandatory masking was heard, as was strong opposition, and more than once Bainter had to intervene to keep the meeting from straying into impassioned quarreling among audience members, or a debate over the scientific evidence for the effectiveness of masks and vaccines.

Meeting attendee James Pfarr compared mask mandates to slavery, and staunchly maintained that “none of these masks work.” Another voice in opposition to masking was district parent Lisa Lockhart, who said her child, who suffers from asthma, has had trouble breathing when required to wear a mask in school.

“Who do we have to beg for our kids to get fresh air if it goes to tier two?” she demanded.

Erin Gibson of Logan, on the other hand, told the board, “I approve of the tiered policy. I think it makes sense.”

Stacie Howe of Logan called for civility, saying, “I do think we need to stop attacking each other.”

Brian Breining of Logan agreed that it’s worth some serious effort to avoid a return to remote learning – “Everybody knows how awful that was” – and urged the board to empower Bainter to make the call to move up a tier if COVID numbers spike. “Please give the superintendent the authority to make those decisions,” he said.

Educator Jeannine Landis suggested that masking makes good sense as a protective measure if it keeps even one child from contracting the potentially deadly virus. “I think as a district we can do better to keep our children safe,” she declared. “Why are we not doing it?” Her comments sparked applause from many in the audience.

Cammie Starner, a research nurse, endorsed this view, adding that masks protect both the wearer, and by inhibiting the spread of COVID, others Nas well. “The masks we wear are for you,” she told the audience.

Becca Gates, a recent alum of Logan High School, seemed close to tears as she recalled losing out on months of her senior year due to remote learning. Requiring masks, she said, is “just one way that we can care for other people.”

Jessica Dicken complained that COVID and masking have become politicized issues, and “our children have become pawns in this.” Lindsey Perry of Logan said she is “extremely disappointed” in the district’s mask-optional policy.

Travis Pickrell of Logan suggested that “literally no one,” including himself, has thoroughly reliable information on COVID, masking, or vaccines. Therefore, he suggested, it does make sense to take the advice of health professionals, and also to focus on shared priorities. “We’re all here because we care,” he said.

Bainter and members of the board stressed that everyone in the room shares a desire to keep district students safe, and that mandates are what school officials are trying to avoid.

“No one’s going to mandate the vaccine,” assured board member and physician Scott Anzalone, M.D. “We’re not trying to force you to put masks on your kids… (But) we’ve got to be prepared if the numbers keep increasing.”

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