School masks: Some districts approve hundreds of exemptions, others few

Hallways at Stebbins high school are less crowded because the students are on a rotating daily schedule. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF
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Hallways at Stebbins high school are less crowded because the students are on a rotating daily schedule. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF

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Some reject all, others approve all, including from parents armed with minister licenses.

More than half of Dayton-area schools have mask mandates intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, but those districts vary widely on how — or if — they allow religious or medical exemptions.

Beavercreek and Centerville are similar-sized districts. Beavercreek has approved all 379 exemption requests that were submitted, according to district officials, while Centerville said it approved the lone medical request it received and denied all 36 requests made on religious grounds.

In the Valley View district, one parent went online last month to get her instant ministerial license for exactly this reason. She signed exemption requests for more than 150 students, all of which Valley View schools approved. Despite a similar effort by a Greeneview resident, that school district rejected all 86 religious exemption requests.

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“Typically, when an individual is claiming a religious exemption, they are claiming that the mask requirement unlawfully prohibits them from exercising their religion,” said Sara Clark, chief legal counsel for the Ohio School Boards Association.

But Clark said free exercise of religion does not relieve a person “of the obligation to comply with valid and neutral laws,” according to consistent U.S. Supreme Court rulings and a recent Michigan appeals court ruling.

Schools’ exemption totals

The Dayton Daily News asked two dozen local districts and schools for both the mask exemption form that families can fill out, as well as how many requests had been submitted and approved.

Seven public school districts said they each had approved more than 100 mask exemptions. Beavercreek (379 exemptions) and Springboro (262) did not offer a breakdown of how many were for medical versus religious grounds. In Xenia (304 total), Kettering (156 total) and Lebanon (124 total), around 60% of exemptions were for religious reasons.

Kettering Fairmont High School CTC students from left, Hope Dwyer and Victoria Lewis works in the cosmetology classroom Thursday Jan. 14, 2021. Kettering schools is renovating part of it's career technology center to start a new program in Medical Assistance.
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Kettering Fairmont High School CTC students from left, Hope Dwyer and Victoria Lewis works in the cosmetology classroom Thursday Jan. 14, 2021. Kettering schools is renovating part of it's career technology center to start a new program in Medical Assistance.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

In Troy (250 total exemptions) and Valley View (179 total), more than 90% were on religious grounds.

Carroll High School, a Catholic school in Riverside that mandates masks for all, does not offer any exemptions, “and no one has requested one,” Principal Matt Sableski said.

The Yellow Springs school district and the Dayton Early College Academy charter school also do not offer mask exemptions. Oakwood schools received two exemption requests and both were denied.

Different processes, forms

Public health officials recommend masks in school, both to avoid transmission of COVID-19 and to limit the number of students who have to quarantine when there is a COVID case. The CDC says “multi-layer cloth masks block release of exhaled respiratory particles into the environment, along with the microorganisms (viruses) these particles carry.”

At many local schools, parents can fill out a form seeking a mask exemption. But those forms vary widely from school to school.

Centerville’s exemption form has a box to check for those who say “an established sincerely held religious requirement exists that does not permit the student to wear a mask.” The form asks families to “explain/attach documentation” that supports their request.

And immediately below that, the form explains, “Ohio law prohibits any person from knowingly making a false statement with the purpose of misleading a public official …”

Forms from Beavercreek, Xenia and some other districts do not require any supporting documentation, or a signature from a doctor or clergy member.

Virginia Stevenson Elementary, Third grader Harper Grzegarzewski, works with her teacher Tessler Baird during the first day of school, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF
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Virginia Stevenson Elementary, Third grader Harper Grzegarzewski, works with her teacher Tessler Baird during the first day of school, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF

Valley View’s form requires a signed statement from a religious official, describing the specific religious tenet that precludes the student from wearing a mask. It also requires a personally written statement describing “the religious basis for your objection.”

Valley View parent Kristen Grant got her ministerial license online from the Universal Life Church a few days before school started and signed numerous students’ exemption forms.

Grant cited Bible passages that “a man ought not cover his head” because he is made in the image of God. She also said she believes “masks are causing far more harm then providing protection” against COVID.

Superintendent Ben Richards said despite the strict requirements on Valley View’s form, his school board discussed the issue and “did not want to restrict people” too much.

“There was a belief that most people would just do the right thing, for lack of a better phrase,” Richards said.

Stricter responses

Greeneview Superintendent Sabrina Woodruff approved four of seven medical mask exemption requests, but denied all 86 religious exemption requests in her district. Greeneview required documentation of the “established sincerely held religious belief” in question.

Woodruff said 29 of the requests were processed by a local resident who had gotten an online minister license and 28 cited the Ohio Constitution, not a religious tenet.

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Miamisburg schools made clear to families on their exemption form that simply filling it out would not guarantee an exemption.

“Please note that the bar to establish a ‘sincerely held religious belief or requirement’ is very high,” the district’s form said. “For example, if your student wore a mask in 2020-2021, it is unlikely he/she would qualify for a religious exemption this year.”

Multiple parents posted their rejection emails from Superintendent Laura Blessing on social media, where Blessing pointed out that their child wore a mask without any religious objection previously. In the emails, the district says the child could use a face shield instead, or select the district’s online schooling option.

In signing Cedarville’s exemption form, parents attest to the following: “I understand that choosing not to wear a facial covering places all, including my student, at an increased risk for contracting COVID-19.” Superintendent Chad Mason said only “two or three” parents have submitted the form.


DATA ON LOCAL SCHOOL MASK EXEMPTIONS

Centerville — 1 medical request, approved; 36 religious requests, all denied

Beavercreek — 379 requests across all categories, all approved

Kettering — 156 total exemptions issued for grades K-8, 66% religious, 19% medical, 14% disability

Springboro — 262 exemptions approved; no breakdown. “Not many” denied

Lebanon — 124 total exemptions, 61% religious, 23% medical, 15% disability

Miamisburg — 36 requests across all categories, 8 approved

Northmont — 73 exemptions; no breakdown of reason or number denied

Troy — 250 requests received, all approved. Over 230 of them religious

Fairborn — 16 exemptions, all medical; no information on rejections

Xenia — 304 exemptions, 57% religious, 23% disability/medical, 19% due to being vaccinated

Mad River — 12 exemptions, all medical; no data on rejections

Bellbrook — 7 medical requests, all approved; “very few” religious applications.

Oakwood — 2 requests, both denied

Valley View — 179 requests, all approved (169 religious, 10 medical)

Yellow Springs — No exemptions offered

Greeneview — 7 medical requests, 4 approved; 86 religious requests, all denied

Cedar Cliff — Less than 5 exemptions

DECA — No exemptions offered

Carroll — No exemptions offered

Did not respond — Dayton, Huber Heights, Trotwood-Madison, Chaminade Julienne

SOURCE: School leadership