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Ohio Department of Health releases full COVID safety guidance for schools: Masks strongly recommended for unvaccinated students and staff

The new statewide guidance comes as the delta variant continues spreading across Ohio.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — As the upcoming school year quickly approaches, will Ohio students be required to wear a mask when classes resume?

Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, who is the chief medical officer for the Ohio Department of Health, discussed new state guidance regarding schools and COVID-19 safety during a press conference Monday morning.

"While there are no mandates associated with this guidance, we believe that the recommendations we are issuing are essential to the health of Ohio’s youth and the success of the coming school year," Dr. Vanderhoff said. "The safety of Ohio’s children is paramount, and the preventive measures that schools take will help protect Ohio’s students. While children are less likely to get severely ill from COVID-19, they’re not invincible – and most certainly can and do have the risk of becoming ill.”

The full guidance was released Tuesday morning, which you can review in the following document:

Dr. Vanderhoff said the guidance focuses on three layers of protection. He listed those as follows:

  • "We strongly recommend vaccinations for staff and eligible students."
  • "We strongly recommend those who are unvaccinated consistently wear masks, which have proven a very effective tool for reducing the spread of the virus."
  • "Additional measures: Including improving ventilation, maximizing distance between people, good hand sanitation and others."

“In summary, our guidance strongly recommends COVID-19 vaccines for staff, teachers and eligible students," Dr. Vanderhoff continued. "We also strongly recommend that everyone in schools that is unvaccinated – students, teachers, staff, volunteers, coaches – wear masks indoors, and outdoors when maintaining proper distance simply isn’t possible. Masks continue to be very effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and will help students return to safe, in-person learning this fall.”

So what about children younger than 12 who aren't currently eligible to receive a COVID vaccine?

The Ohio Department of Health's guidelines say "it is strongly recommended that schools implement masking for students layered with other prevention strategies to protect people who are not fully vaccinated." It's also noted that less than a third of children ages 12-17 are fully vaccinated.

We streamed the entire press conference Monday with the updated mask guidance, which you can watch in the player below:

For those districts not opting to require masks, ODH says parents will still have the option to have their child wear a facial covering while in class or participating in school activities. Here's what the state's guidance suggests:

  • Indoors: It is recommended that masks be worn. Children under 2 years of age should never wear masks.
  • Outdoors: In general, mask use is not necessary when outdoors, including when participating in outdoor play, recess and physical education activities. However, particularly in areas of substantial to high transmission, the CDC recommends that people who are not fully vaccinated wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings or during activities that involve sustained close contact with others who are not fully vaccinated.

The guidance also indicates the CDC is continuing to require masks on all public transportation -- including school buses.

"This requirement is regardless of vaccination status," ODH's guidance notes.

RELATED: Dr. Fauci says US headed in 'wrong direction' on coronavirus

Dr. Vanderhoff said the state's guidance was determined after seeking input "from a wide variety of experts."

“Issuing this guidance will allow school districts to have the flexibility and support they need to provide access to in-person learning five days a week," Dr. Vanderhoff said. "As students prepare to head back to school, we are building upon the layered prevention strategies that were remarkably effective at controlling COVID-19 last school year, along with the addition of encouraging COVID vaccines that are now available and authorized for those who are 12 and older."

He also suggested schools make every effort to provide good ventilation within classrooms and other common spaces.

"One way to achieve proper ventilation is to bring in as much outdoor air as possible," he explained. "When safe, schools should open windows and doors and use child-safe fans. Similarly, windows on buses and school vehicles should be kept open when safe."

RELATED: Northeast Ohio school districts announce mask guidelines for 2021-22 school year

Despite the new guidance, some districts have already announced their plans for masks. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District confirmed last week that all students, staff and guests will be required to wear masks for the first five weeks regardless of vaccination status.

Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics released its recommendation that anybody older than 2 wear a mask in school -- including those who are fully vaccinated.

RELATED: Delta variant spreading in Ohio at increasing rates: Health officials urge vaccinations

What about sports and extracurricular activities? The ODH guidance lists these two strategies for mitigation:

  • Prevention strategies for those who participate remain important and should comply with school day policies and procedures. Students should refrain from these activities when they have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and should be tested.
  • The use of masking and social distancing to the extent possible is recommended during indoor sports and other higher-risk activities to protect students who are not fully vaccinated.

Dr. Vanderhoff, meanwhile, also addressed the impact of the delta variant within Ohio.

“After a period of steady decline, we continue to see a pattern of COVID-19 cases rising again in Ohio," he said. "The statewide average of cases per 100,000 residents over two weeks is now 45.8 as last reported Thursday, July 22. This is an increase from the two-week average of 27 cases per 100,000 reported July 15, and a significant increase from our low of 17.6 as of July 7.”

He also said this is "fast becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated."

This all comes as Dr. Anthony Fauci says the CDC could possibly reverse its current guidance on masks, meaning it may be suggested that everybody wear a mask again – even those who are fully vaccinated.

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