by J.D. Davidson
When a local school district decided not to require masks for students and staff, a small north central Ohio village decided to take matters into its own hands.
Gambier, a town of about 2,500 people about 60 miles northeast of Columbus, enacted a mask mandate during an emergency village council meeting Monday, encompassing nearly all public buildings, including an elementary school.
“Folks were concerned about how students and staff were not required to wear masks and this was something we could do in order to protect the school and the community,” Gambier Mayor Leeman Kessler told The Center Square on Tuesday. “We were waiting on what the various schools were going to do, and we began to get more and more word on the escalation of cases in our county.”
The mandate covers Wiggin Street Elementary School and Kenyon College, which enacted its own mask mandate earlier this month. Kessler said the village’s mandate mirrors Kenyon’s.
“There was a fair amount of conversation. It was not an ugly meeting. There was no abusive behavior,” Kessler said. “Everyone had a chance to have their opinion heard and their questions answered.”
Wiggin Street Elementary is part of the Mount Vernon City School District, which decided to leave masking options up to parents. Monday’s village vote requires students in one of the district’s seven buildings to be masked, while the rest of the district is not required.
In fact, the one elementary school will be the only school among Knox County’s six school districts to have a mask mandate.
Throughout Ohio, school districts continue to weigh mask options as the majority of the state’s K-12 students head back to school this week and health officials issue stronger and stronger recommendations for masks. Without a statewide mandate from Gov. Mike DeWine, the Ohio Board of Education or the Ohio Department of Health, decisions are falling to local governments to make decisions.
After the singing of House Bill 22 in mid-June, local health departments no longer have the authority to mandate things such as masks until there is a confirmed outbreak in a specific school. DeWine vetoed that bill, but the General Assembly eventually voted to override the veto.
Districts in all of Ohio’s major cities have enacted mask mandates, while other districts require masks for only younger students. Many rural districts have left decisions up to parents.
Larger cities in the state, such as Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, have mask mandates in place, as do some suburban cities. Few rural cities have taken the step.
DeWine said in late July he did not believe he had the authority to impose a new mask mandate or other COVID-19 restrictions. Instead, he said his focus was on vaccines and the more than 50% of Ohioans who have yet to be fully vaccinated.
“I do not believe I have the ability today to mandate [masks in schools]. There is not the appetite in this state for that kind of a mandate,” DeWine said in July. “We are at a point in the pandemic where information is out there, but these decisions must be left to the local community and must be left to the parents.”
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J.D. Davidson is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience in newspapers in Ohio, Georgia, Alabama and Texas. He has served as a reporter, editor, managing editor and publisher. He is a regional editor for The Center Square.