Masks will be required for all students and staff in grades kindergarten through six for the 2021-2022 school year, subject to change upon the ever-updating guidance of health recommendations, district officials said.

The Chagrin Falls Board of Education unanimously approved a return to school plan for this year – effective the first day of classes today (Thursday) – during an Aug. 11 meeting in the Intermediate School cafeteria, which was also streamed live to YouTube. Board member Sharon Broz was not present for the meeting last week.

The decision followed Superintendent Jennifer Penczarski’s presentation and about an hour of input from parents and community members who mostly voiced their opposition to the masking of their young children, some claiming the masks pose a greater threat to their children’s health than the highly contagious coronavirus itself.

The district already had a masking policy in place through summer programming that required students to wear masks when indoors. The summer program was approved by the board on June 2 and was in effect until Wednesday.

“This plan is meant to guide families, staff and students as we return for the 2021-2022 school year. It will continue to be updated,” Dr. Penczarski said of the new plan. “Guidance has been changing constantly.

“Things change, we’ll be responsive and we will get that out to you as soon as we can,” she continued. “This [the current plan] is our best guess for how we will start, and we feel it’s a pretty solid plan.”

As part of the new plan, masking is required for all students and staff in grades kindergarten through six and optional – but strongly recommended – for students and staff in grades seven through 12. Masking will also be optional for all grades when outdoors.

All students and staff will be required to mask when riding school transportation, and all students must follow current masking protocol unless approved for an exemption, according to the plan.

For preschool, masking will be strongly recommended for students and required for staff.

“Visitors and volunteers are required to wear face coverings in all district buildings during the school day and at building events as designated by administration unless an exemption has been granted,” the plan states.

When outdoors, masks will not be required for any students or staff; however, “in areas of substantial to high transmission, people should wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings or during activities that involve sustained close contact with other people, as recommended by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention],” according to the return to school plan. “Should transmission rates increase, K-6 students may be required to wear a mask while outdoors during activities, such as recess.”

For athletic events, spectators of outdoor events will not be required to wear masks and will be strongly encouraged to wear masks for indoor events. The number of spectators of athletic events will not be restricted “unless designated by a district administrator,” but distancing will be encouraged with home and visitor stands open to allow for spacing. All ticket sales will also be online with no cash option.

Approximately 3 feet of distancing will be in place as feasible for all students and staff, and online meetings can be utilized for families and staff. Sanitization practices are consistent with last year’s procedures, including hand sanitizing stations, water bottle refill stations, cleaning of commonly touched surfaces and tuned HVAC systems for more outside air intake.

The full return to school presentation and guidelines is available on the district website at https://bit.ly/3yQrCNq.

With the board’s approval of the plan last week, Dr. Penczarski also has the authority to pivot through different plans without needing to meet for additional board approval.

“We need to be aware that [local and state health departments] are dealing with a variant and changes are happening and people are doing the best they can to navigate what the best practice would be,” Dr. Penczarski said. “Any changes to our plan will be communicated to all members of the school community in a timely fashion, allowing us to pivot quickly to ensure the health and safety of our staff and students.”

Board President Phil Rankin explained that this is the same practice the district followed with former Superintendent Bob Hunt last year when transitioning between online, in-person and hybrid learning models.

“The board basically approved the various plans that Dr. Hunt had, and then we empowered him to pivot as he needed to [through] the different plans given the changes in CDC guidance and such,” he said. “Dr. Penczarski included a narrative for us to approve this plan, which gives her the ability to make changes as necessary as different guidance comes out.”

In addressing the “why” of the return to school plan, Dr. Penczarski walked the board and attending community members through the importance of having students in class in person and the need to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and corresponding variants to make this possible.

“We really believe that our students need to be in school five days a week; that’s the best place,” she said. “We want to be able to provide a safe place for learning.”

According to CDC guidance, masking or vaccination – each considered “one layer of protection” – reduces the need for quarantine following exposure to the virus, Dr. Penczarski said. For those with access to both layers of protection, specifically students in grades seven through 12 who choose to wear a mask while vaccinated, this protection only increases.

Without having the required masking in place for grades kindergarten through six, to whom the vaccine is not yet available, she said it is likely that “our students would be subject to increased quarantine measures under current guidance from COVID-19 exposure.” She added that staff in grades kindergarten through six could also risk transmitting the virus to their unvaccinated students without masks.

“Chagrin Falls is committed to providing academic excellence by providing a safe, in-person learning environment,” Dr. Penczarski said. “We’ll continue to monitor all laws, mandates, guidelines, research and data on a regular basis and make adjustments on our plan whenever necessary.”

Sam joined the Times in 2019 and covers several communities and schools in the Chagrin Valley and Geauga County. She also oversees the features/community events and the website. She earned her bachelor's degree in journalism from Kent State University.

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