The Ohio Departments of Health (ODH) and Education (ODE) have prepared guidance documents for school districts to use as they plan for the 2020-21 school year. One question that has been raised about the documents is whether school districts are required to implement the elements discussed or whether they are merely recommendations.

Both documents use the words “must” and “should” throughout the guidelines. The provisions of ODH Guidance that use the word “must” include:

  • Immediately, upon showing symptoms of COVID-19 or a temperature above 100 degrees, separating any staff, student or volunteer from others and providing them with a face covering.
  • Referring those displaying symptoms of COVID-19 to an appropriate health care professional or testing sites.
  • Monitoring daily absences of students and staff for trends.
  • Ensuring the staff, students, and other members of the school community who have suspected or confirmed COVID-19 do not return before isolating for a period of time and experiencing an improvement in symptoms.
  • Providing opportunities throughout the day to wash hands and hand sanitizer in high traffic areas.
  • Cleaning surfaces frequently, paying close attention to high touch areas and shared materials, and making sanitation wipes or disinfectants labeled for use against COVID-19 available in each room and common space.
  • School staff wearing face masks (unless they meet one of the exceptions or doing so would significantly interfere with the learning process).
  • Providing written justification to local health department officials, if requested, explaining why any staff member is not required to wear a face covering in school.
  • Providing appropriate PPE, in accordance with OSHA standards, for school nurses or staff who care for individuals with symptoms of COVID-19.
  • Establishing a face mask policy considering all the available science. 

The provisions that use the words “should” or “recommended” include:

  • Taking temperatures of students and staff as they enter school buildings.
  • Contacting local health departments in the case of positive or suspected COVID-19 cases in the building.
  • Checking sick leave and absence policies to ensure that they do not penalize staff or students for staying home when symptomatic or in quarantine or isolation.
  • School staff, students and volunteers practicing frequent handwashing and avoid touching their mouths, noses and eyes.
  • School staff, students and volunteers maintaining six-foot social distance from others.
  • Endeavoring to do the best they can to keep social distancing on buses.
  • Wearing face masks that are at least cloth/fabric and cover the nose, mouth and chin.
  • Working to reduce social stigma for student who cannot and should not wear a mask.
  • Considering the use of face shields in situations when masks would hinder the learning process.
  • It is strongly recommended that students in grade 3 and higher should wear a face mask unless they are unable to do so for a health or developmental reason.
  • It is strongly recommended that school districts require students to wear masks while being transported on school buses.

When discussing the ODH Guidance, the ODE Planning Guide states that “health and safety precautions must be paramount.” The ODE Planning Guide further emphasizes the nature of the ODH Guidance by using boldface type in the word “must” in this sentence: “Specific precautions as set forth by the Ohio Department of Health and local health departments must be observed during the pandemic recovery phase to lower the rate of transmission and slow the spread of COVID-19.” The ODE Planning Guide does not say that some precautions in the ODH Guidance are mandatory and others are recommended. The ODE Planning Guide states: “It is important to note the health and safety guidelines referred to in this document have been identified by the Ohio Department of Health and are intended to protect Ohioans. The return-to-school considerations outlined later in this guide are not mandatory.”

Whether the provisions of the ODH Guidance are mandatory or permissive, one key takeaway from the ODE Planning Guide is: “Each local district and school is expected to use the health guidance in collaboration with the local health department to develop and implement a plan for reopening. Should schools not be able to abide by these guidelines, they should remain closed to in-person instruction until an appropriate plan can be developed and implemented.”

If districts have specific questions about the ODH Guidance, they can consult with their local health departments for clarification and with their legal counsel for advice and guidance.

Posted by Jennifer A. Hardin on 7/14/2020