CINCINNATI — During a typical year, heading back to school means many parents have to make decisions about things like after-school child care or arrangements for carpools.

What You Need To Know

  • Most schools are returning to in-person learning five days a week to begin the 2021-22 school year

  • The CDC recommends universal mask wearing inside K-12 schools, but some schools are not mandating they be worn

  • Many parents are glad the "structure" of the classroom setting is returning

  • Other parents are nervous that optional masking puts others at risk

Over the last 18 months, however, the idea of "typical" has changed dramatically due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As students across greater Cincinnati and the entire country begin to make their way back into classrooms, parents are being asked to make difficult choices about their children's education.

For many, it means a balancing act between their child's health, academic success and social well-being.

Ryan Messer finds himself in a unique position. Beyond being a parent of four, he's also a member of the board for Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS). He and his husband have two children enrolled in CPS schools and another who goes to school in the Columbus-area.

"The primary goal is ensuring our kids have access to education and anything we can do to accomplish that is great. One thing we now can do to mitigate as much risk as possible, is wearing a mask," Messer said.

Due to the COVID-19 spike related to the delta variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that masks or facial coverings be worn in school this year by everyone, regardless of a person’s vaccination status.

The CDC stressed the benefits of in-person learning and emphasized the value of “layered prevention strategies," such as social distancing and wearing masks. The aim is to protect staff as well as students, especially vulnerable groups, like the under-12 population, that can't currently get the vaccine.

As a result, most local school districts are at least recommending masks be worn indoors this school year. CPS is one of several southwest Ohio districts making it a requirement. CPS decided to continue its policy from last school year.

"One thing we all want is for our kids to receive a high-quality education. And we know that the remote education — while everyone did their absolute best — didn’t give us the same outcomes as when we were live and in-person,” Messer said. "Anything we can do to keep them in school, learning, we should do."

Messer said he received one parent complaint this summer about the need for students and teachers to wear masks. But in general, the number of questions and concerns dropped considerably compared to last year, he said.

Messer credited the consistency of the district's policies and the level of communication over the past 18 months.

“One thing we did last year was we've normalized masks, which I think is a good thing. It's now no big deal for most people," he said.

Fred Neurohr's son, Joey Kitchell, is in his first year at Walnut Hill High Schools, a CPS institution. Being physically in the classroom is important for the freshman's education, Neurohr said.

"My son needs structure and supervision to stay on track — something we could not provide a ton of while he was remote learning," he said. He called remote learning a "nearly impossible task for a teenager with limited impulse control."

Neurohr said he's "cautiously excited" about what’s ahead for his son.

"Going to school — masked and fully vaccinated — is a boon to Joey's progress as a student, his spirit as a person and his functional roles as a part of the family," he said.

Blair Whitney's daughter, Avery Barter, had her first day at St. Ursula Academy (SUA) on Thursday. Whitney sent her now 10th-grader off to school in East Walnut Hills with a surgical mask.

Whitney said she made Avery promise to wear the mask all day. Like many schools and districts across the state, SUA is recommending mask wearing but not requiring it this year.

"Last year, my daughter's school was very cautious. Masks were required, distancing was enforced, and large gatherings did not occur. Some students got sick, but the spread at school was limited because the school was so proactive and prudent," she said.

"This year, masks are now optional, and several large gatherings, like indoor pep rallies, are on the calendar for the first few weeks of school."

Whitney fears making masks optional means most students won't wear them. She said the “responsible decision" would have been to make masks mandatory for at least the start of the school year.

“My kids and I all have asthma,” she said. "As a single parent, the prospect of getting COVID myself has been particularly scary because of the burden that could potentially place on my kids.”

SUA stressed that they have other safety measures in place, including social distancing in classrooms and monthly deep cleans. They also mentioned that their COVID-19 Crisis Team meets weekly and they will adjust policies as needed.

Thomas Hargis said he and his wife decided to homeschool their three children last year to provide consistency.

Hargis wanted to avoid an "in-and-out revolving door" of in-person and remote learning. He credited the work-from-home policies in place at the time for making it possible.

The couple's two oldest children, ages 15 and 16, are vaccinated so they feel comfortable sending them back to in-person classes. They’re attending Finneytown High School and Summit Academy, respectively. Both schools require masks.

Hargis said the challenge is with his daughter who is 5 and signed up to attend St. Vivian Catholic School, which is not mandating masks.

"My chief concern is my kindergartener who is unable to be vaccinated. Currently, the policies in place (at her school) have her fending for herself,” he said.

He said they considered homeschooling her, but it would have been difficult due to the family’s current work situation. They also feel that age 5 is an important time for social development and didn’t want to keep her from classmates and making friends.

"The issue is socialization,” he said. "My daughter is already showing signs of too much attention and single-child type stuff in a family of six. She needs peers.”

The Finneytown Local School District announced this week that masks must be worn by all students and teachers. But Hargis said after talking to his wife, they plan to keep their daughter at St. Vivian.

“Our child will wear a mask, to protect herself and her classmates,” he said.