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DeWine: If Schools Don't Return March 1, They Won't Get COVID-19 Vaccines

Gov. Mike DeWine held a press conference Friday evening on Feb. 12, 2021. [Office of Gov. Mike DeWine]
Gov. Mike DeWine held a press conference Friday evening on Feb. 12, 2021. [Office of Gov. Mike DeWine]

Updated: 8:02 p.m., Friday, Feb. 12, 2021

Some Ohio schools aren’t adhering to their commitment to go back to in-person learning after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Gov. Mike DeWine.

During a surprise Friday evening press conference, DeWine warned that if schools don’t go back to school on March 1 as promised, he will redirect vaccine to other vulnerable populations.

“We have a small amount of vaccine,” DeWine said. “We’re trying to apply it where we can save the most lives.”

In order to receive vaccines for their staff, school officials had to commit to bringing kids back into classrooms by March 1. Every district in Ohio made that commitment, except one.

DeWine said the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) is one of the school systems having an issue making the March 1 deadline, and he threatened to cut off vaccine supplies to any schools that don't honor that commitment.

But the governor said Friday he spoke with CMSD CEO Eric Gordon, and Gordon agreed to honor his previous commitment, so staff will continue to receive vaccinations.

“The purpose of this is not to threaten anybody or punish anybody,” DeWine said.

But DeWine can't redirect vaccine in districts and schools that have already received it but are now looking to push back the return to in-person schooling, such as Akron and Cincinnati. 

He expressed disappointment that staff at Akron Public Schools already received the vaccine but school officials are indicating they will not be back in classrooms until later in March.

Akron Public Schools responded to DeWine’s press conference Friday evening, saying the district instituted a phased-in reopening plan on Feb. 1.

“Safety is our highest priority and has been the driving factor in our decisions,” the statement from APS Board President N.J. Akbar read. “We were asked to have a hybrid or in-person option by March 1 st and we complied with that agreement. Promise kept!”

Akron schools vaccinations are running behind, according to administrators there. The initial shipment of 900 doses was well below the 3,000 first doses needed, Akron Schools spokesman Mark Williamson told ideastream Feb. 1, though vaccinations are expected to continue through this weekend. Second doses are scheduled to be complete there by March. 6.

DeWine said Walnut Hills, a high school in Cincinnati, plans to remain remote for the rest of the school year, despite Cincinnati public schools being the first district in the state to begin vaccinations.

The governor’s March 1 deadline aims to give Ohio students at least three months of in-person learning and help academic outcomes after a year of uncertainty and difficulty, he said.

“As far as March 1, there’s nothing magical about this,” DeWine said. “We want to give schools long enough time to get ready for this.”

The state is currently on track to vaccinate as many of Ohio’s 334,000 school teachers and staff who want the shot with at least a first dose by March 1, he said.

DeWine said he is aware of the challenges the return to in-person learning poses, especially for large, urban districts like CMSD, from limiting class sizes to solving transportation issues, but there are ways to mitigate those concerns, he said, like hybrid models, which would have fewer students in the building at one time.

“The superintendent of a large, urban school has many, many challenges, and starting back up has been a challenge,” DeWine said. “I understand; it is a tough job.”

DeWine said the push to get kids back in school is rooted in the belief that being out of school impacts students mentally, emotionally, and academically.

“This is really about our children, and it’s about what we’ve learned in the last year,” he said.

DeWine said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and research from the state suggest schools that follow masking and social distancing protocols can control COVID-19 spread. The CDC on Friday  released its much-anticipated, updated guidance to help school leaders decide how to safely bring students back into classrooms, focused on known, effective safety precautions:  masking, physical distancing, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, ventilation and building cleaning, and contact tracing.

lisa.ryan@ideastream.org | 216-916-6158