Xenia schools offer mask exemptions; board divided on mandate

Newly elected Xenia Community Schools board members George Leightenheimer, Josh Day, and Mary Grech are sworn in on Monday.

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Newly elected Xenia Community Schools board members George Leightenheimer, Josh Day, and Mary Grech are sworn in on Monday. LONDON BISHOP/STAFF

Newly elected board members immediately call for an end to the district mask mandate.

Xenia Community Schools will reopen COVID-19 mask exemptions as the board remains divided on whether lift the district’s mask mandate.

The board compromised on a reopening of mask exemptions next Tuesday, but tensions linger around the district’s mask conversation.

Lines appear to have been drawn in the board as newcomers Joshua Day, Mary Grech and George Leightenheimer, sworn in Monday night, elected Day as board president in a 3-2 vote, and promptly called for a vote to overturn Xenia’s mask mandate.

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The push comes at the same time that several school districts across the Miami Valley, including Fairborn, West Carrollton, Northridge, Huber Heights and Dayton declared that they will go remote this week or extend remote learning due to illnesses among staff and students.

Returning board members Tami Bartley and Pam Callahan called for more discussion, citing those districts and that area hospitals have suspended elective surgeries, and had to call in the Ohio National Guard amid record COVID hospitalizations.

“As a teacher, I think it would be irresponsible of us as a board and as a district to unmask right now,” Bartley said.

Gretch noted that most student exposures happen outside of school and cited the psychological effect of children wearing masks.

Superintendent Gabriel Lofton added that if the district were to unmask immediately, the district has no plan to address a wave of increased cases, contact tracing, and other requirements among staff and students.

“If we remove masks, we would have to do an inordinate amount of contact tracing,” Lofton said. “My administrators, my staff would have to do that. I think it would be irresponsible, and quite frankly reckless to unmask at this point in time when we know what’s happening across the country. I’m not saying at some point we shouldn’t unmask, but now is not the time.”

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Xenia operates under Ohio’s “Mask to Stay, Test to Play” policy, in which students who have been exposed to COVID-19 may stay in school if they don’t show symptoms and wear a mask for 10 days after their last date of exposure (regardless of any previous exemption). But in Xenia’s case these mostly apply to quarantines and keeping kids learning in-person.

“Unmasking would be the quickest way to remote learning,” Lofton said.

The vote to reinstate mask exemptions was also passed 3-2, with Day, Gretch and Leightenheimer in favor, and Bartley and Callahan against. The board will reconsider lifting the mask mandate next month.

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