Worthington Schools leaders cite safety as impetus behind mask mandate for K-12 students, faculty
Student safety was the primary factor in the Worthington Schools Board of Education’s decision to implement a new districtwide mask mandate, according to district leaders.
In a 4-1 vote Aug. 23, the school board approved the mandate in a 4-1 vote, requiring all students in grades K-12, as well as faculty members, to wear masks in school buildings because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
“The first thing everybody wants to consider is student safety," Superintendent Trent Bowers said. “We want our students to be physically safe. The recommendations from public-health (institutions) would tell us that students would be more physically safe with masks on from COVID-19.”
Bowers said district officials meet weekly with Columbus Public Health and Franklin County Public Health, both of which have “strongly recommended” masks in schools.
They also refer to guidance from the Ohio Department of Health, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends that both unvaccinated people over the age of 2 and fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors.
“From the very start, I have been advocating for following whatever the CDC says to do,” said board member Charlie Wilson, who introduced the amendment for the mask mandate during the meeting. “My view is No. 1, I am definitely not a public-health expert. No. 2, our (administrators) are education experts but not public-health experts. And my view is we should always follow what the experts say, and the CDC is world-renowned as the best public-health agency in the world. Whatever they’ve recommended is what I’ve advocated for.
“When it comes to anything involving science, I’m going to go with what the science says.”
Board President Jennifer Best cast the "no" vote in the decision, citing the desire to give the community notice about the matter before voting on it.
“First, I trusted our superintendent to make the decisions about masks and did not feel it needed to come to the board," Best said. "He has done a good job of leading us through COVID decisions over the past 18 months.
"Second, the motion was not on the agenda, and it is not fair to the community that they did not know such a vote was coming up. The community needs to know when we are making decisions and not be surprised.”
The mandate went into effect across the district Aug. 25. The first day of school was Aug. 18.
The previous mandate required students in grades K-8 to wear masks and recommended masks for high school students. Masks were strongly recommended for vaccinated staff members and mandated for all unvaccinated staff members.
Before the meeting, Protect Worthington, a group of parents, students and community members advocating for a universal mask mandate throughout the district, demonstrated outside of the Worthington Education Center. They were countered by a group of parents, students and community members opposed to a mask mandate.
“It’s really up to the kids (right now) who step into the (high school) building to decide (whether they wear a mask),” said Maria Ramirez of Protect Worthington, who has a daughter who is a junior. “There’s no enforcement; no one asked the parents what they want done.
"So the kids are on their own to make this decision. We know that kids are at a point in development where they’re more likely to engage in risky behavior, to be impulsive. And so they’re really not the people who should be making that decision. It should be the parents, and it’s not happening now.”
Erica Dean was opposed to mask mandates in schools.
“It’s a virus. It’s not going to stop, it’s not going away. It’s here to stay,” said Dean, who has children in the fifth and third grades. “Stay healthy, wash your hands, be a normal person, if you’re sick, stay home and don’t force anything on anybody but yourself. That’s it.”
The demonstrations were followed by a lengthy public comment period at the meeting, during which advocates for both sides verbalized their stance on the issue. Commotion from the audience during the proceedings led to the board calling a 10-minute recess midway through the meeting.
Public apology by Shim
Also on Aug. 23, the board reaffirmed its commitment to its code of ethics and conduct in response to a controversial Facebook post by board member Sam Shim during the Aug. 9 meeting.
Shim apologized in the days afterward.
“A board member’s failure to abide by the board’s code of ethics and code of conduct impairs the public’s trust in the board and the ability of the board to operate effectively,” Best said when reading part of the ethics statement on behalf of the board.
Shim offered a public apology after the board’s statement.
“As board members, we strive to be role models for our students in our community, and I failed,” he said in part of his statement. “What I said is not the example I want to set for our students. I feel that what I can do at this point is to be the best example of what a person can do when he makes a mistake. I am taking full responsibility for my mistake, I am apologizing for it, and I will learn from it to be a better person and a role model in the future.”
Shim is not seeking reelection in November’s general election. Petitions had to be filed with the Franklin County Board of Elections by Aug. 4.