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Hudson Parents Of Special Needs Students Applaud District's Mask Mandate

The district originally offered students the choice of masked or unmasked classrooms but changed to a mask mandate on Monday. [Kabir Bhatia / WKSU]
Hudson Middle School

The Hudson City School District welcomed students back to school Wednesday for the start of the fall semester. The district is enforcing a mask mandate for all students, staff and volunteers for the first five weeks of school. The school board approved the mandate two days earlier at a Monday night meeting.

In Hudson, like in Mayfield Heights and other communities in Northeast Ohio, the issue of mandating masks for school children has been divisive. But parents of special needs students in Hudson welcomed the board's last-minute mask requirement as they prepared their children for the start of a new school year.

On Wednesday morning, Hudson parent Christine Callahan watched as her two children boarded their school bus heading off to campus. Dropping her kids off at the bus stop felt rather “anti-climactic,” she said. 

When she returned home from the bus stop, Callahan said, her husband jokingly asked her when was the last time the two of them were alone in the house together. It wasn’t last school year.

Keeping her family safe from COVID-19 has been top of mind. Callahan's 13-year-old son Andrew is a special needs student who, as she puts it, is “medically complex” — his nervous system didn’t develop properly. 

The eighth grader is in a multi-handicap class this year, but will take art and gym with general education students, with assistance from an aid.

Christine Callahan with her husband Larry, daughter Claire and son Andrew.  [Christine Callahan]

Callahan worries if Andrew got sick with the coronavirus, he may not be able to recover.

“Because he's not mobile, if he does get something that really impacts his lungs, he can't come back from it the same way that the rest of us do because he can't work up that cardiovascular muscle and can't say, OK, let's go for a walk or let's do this to try and get our lungs working better after you've been sick,” Callahan said.

Andrew is vaccinated, but, according to Callahan, he can’t wear a mask at school because he’s always drooling. So, Callahan says, it’s important that there is an added layer of protection around her son, with people being vaccinated and wearing masks.

Callahan says she is somewhat baffled by the resistance to mask wearing in Hudson. She points to the polio vaccine or other vaccines that have helped the general population.

“I don't drive 60 in a 25-mile-per-hour zone and expect nothing to happen. We put clothes on when we leave the house because it's expected of us. I put my kids in car seats and I buckle them into the car because it's safer for us, it's safer for the other passengers in the car,” Callahan said. “So the idea that doing these things is somehow different than the other things that we do to protect ourselves and those around us is something I really struggle with.”

But a contingent of parents with the Hudson City School District who don’t support a mask mandate were vocal at the school board meeting Monday night. 

They argued the data surrounding COVID-19 and children doesn’t support the need for masks. Others questioned the efficacy of wearing masks. They also argued that parents, not the school district, should make the choice.

Jim Mullner, a father of four, told the board masking should be optional and “without penalties.”

“I really do appreciate that it’s a tough situation for the school board to be in,” Mullner said Monday night. “I really don’t think there’s evidence that shows masks work. And so pursuing that as a solution is really just a waste of your resources and time.”

The district originally offered students the option of choosing between a masked and unmasked classroom in the fall. But with rising concern over the delta variant and with guidance from Summit County Public Health, the board voted unanimously in favor of the mandate.

Rachel Cantillon, a mother of three, welcomed the vote but thought the board's decision was made “too late.” 

All three of her kids are Hudson students. Her youngest son Christopher is autistic, and she says she has developed a tight bond with the district's special needs community. She says she knows the vulnerabilities this population can have.

Rachel Cantillon's youngest son, Christopher, started his first day of fourth grade on Wednesday. His autism diagnosis has brought Rachel closer to other parents of special needs students in Hudson. [Rachel Cantillon]

“I just wish they had done it earlier. I wish that they had spared parents the wringing of the hands about whether to put them in a special classroom or not and just said, ‘Listen, this is the way it is. We want to keep everybody in school. We want it to be here five days a week. We're going to wear masks.’”

After a year of hybrid schooling, Cantillon's boys were eager to head back to school Wednesday, she said.

“Yeah, my boys were more excited than I expected. They miss friends and miss seeing people on the regular. It's very nice compared to last year,” Cantillon said. “So I'm glad that they don't have to go back to hybrid. But, I'm hoping it doesn't turn into hybrid, which is why I'm glad that they're wearing the masks.”

As for the rest of the school year, Callahan has been in communication with school board members and the administration and trusts “their driving force is always what is best for most students.”

“They know there's never going to be 100 percent, no matter what. Whether, you're picking a curriculum or designing a building, deciding on math, it's never going to be 100 percent satisfactory to everyone. They go to the science on this, and we're very careful looking at our local numbers and what's happening as other schools were opening and they really looked at what is the best way to keep all students in person, all year,” Callahan said.

Jenny Hamel is the host of the “Sound of Ideas.”