The coronavirus pandemic has continued into a third school year—and brought fresh controversies with it.
BY ELENA FERNANDEZ, ’23 AND JAMES UNDERWOOD, ’23. GRAPHICS BY DAPHNE BONILLA, ’22.
Masks. Social distancing. Hybrid learning. One-way hallways. The 2020-21 school year still lives in the collective memories of UAHS students. Yet as students return to school from a summer with a taste of normalcy, Covid cases have begun to rise, inviting debates and controversies old and new back to the public sphere.
Foremost among these hot topics is the vaccine against the coronavirus.
The COVID vaccine was first made authorized for teens in Ohio on March 18, 2021, as announced by Governor Mike DeWine.
Yet, as of early August, between 60% and 72% of teens aged 15 through 17 were vaccinated in the three zip codes including UA Schools, according to Franklin County Public Health data obtained by Arlingtonian, leaving about a third unvaccinated.
One problem behind getting teens vaccinated is parental permission. While data is sparse, anecdotal evidence, covered in a New York Times article published in June, suggests that letting teens make the vaccine decision for themselves may be an important step in increasing vaccination rates.
In the meantime, some teens in the situation are getting vaccinated without their parents’ permission—often illegally.
Indeed, the laws vary wildly by state. In Washington, D.C., a minor must be 11 years old to get the vaccine; in Alabama, that minor must be 14, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In most other states, including Ohio, minors aren’t able to be vaccinated at all without their parents’ permission.
UAHS junior Rajaram said he didn’t run into any problems getting vaccinated.
“Both my parents were vaccinated, both my parents support vaccines, both my parents supported me getting vaccinated as well,” he said. “So I am fortunate to not have had issues with that.”
Junior Annie Hu had a similar experience.
“My parents were pretty supportive,” she said. “My parents actually got vaccinated first.”
MASK UP, REDUX
As teen vaccination rates slowly inch higher, an older aspect of a broader public health debate has resurfaced: masks.
Over the summer of 2021, a petition to the district circulated throughout the community asking that the district require students to wear masks for the 2021-22 school year.
“We strongly urge that the school board reimplement a mask mandate for the 2021-22 school year,” the petition stated. By the time it was submitted to the district on August 9, it had attained just over 800 signatures.
Rajaram, too, supported another mask mandate.
“I do think [requiring] masks in schools is a good idea,” he said. “I was planning on wearing a mask regardless.”
The controversy reached a boiling point at a highly attended Board of Education meeting on August 10.
At that meeting, held at the Upper Arlington Municipal Building, parents on both sides spoke passionately about the issue. Some said that parents should make the decision for their children—not the district.
“It is not your responsibility, as elected members of this school board, to make health and safety decisions for my children,” one parent said. “It is not your job.”
Ultimately, the board voted to require masks for pre-K through middle school. High school students, on the other hand, are encouraged to wear masks. “The Board of Education also strongly recommended that [UAHS students] wear a mask when indoors on school property,” the district said in a statement.
The district is also advocating increased “outdoor time,” with weather permitting, in which students of all grade levels are not required to wear masks.
The district’s mask policy does not distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated students—under an Ohio law set to take effect later this year, it can’t until the vaccine receives full FDA approval. Still, the district is asking that families submit scanned copies of students’ COVID-19 vaccination cards. Vaccinated students exposed to a student with COVID-19 would not need to quarantine.
This year’s masking controversy parallels more general, and more intense, issues brought up during the 2020-21 school year, a time that notoriously saw students swing back and forth from online to hybrid, and eventually settle on in-person schooling, five days a week. As students finally finish unwinding from that year, some have solidified their opinions from the vantage point of hindsight.
Rajaram, for example, said he was not impressed with the one-way hallway policy.
“I don’t know if that is a guideline that should [have been in place],” he said.
Nonetheless, Rajaram said he was in general satisfied with the district’s response.
“I think the district responded pretty well,” he said. “I thought some things maybe should have been dealt with a little bit better, but, looking back, I think that the district was in a very difficult decision, trying to balance education and the safety of students.”
Hu shared a similar sentiment.
“I think that they did try to keep people safe with the information they had,” she said.