When the Valley View school district decided Sept. 2 to institute an indoor mask mandate, effective on the first day of classes Sept. 7, district parent Kristen Grant didn’t hesitate.
On the afternoon of Sept. 3, she posted on Facebook that she had been ordained by the online Universal Life Church — which allows people to “become a minister within seconds.”
Valley View leaders said their goal in masking was to keep children and staff healthy and prevent COVID spread — at a time when cases and hospitalizations were surging, and quarantines had overwhelmed some other districts.
Local public health officials recommend masks in school, both to avoid transmission of COVID-19 and to limit the number of students who have to quarantine when there is a COVID case. The CDC says “multi-layer cloth masks block release of exhaled respiratory particles into the environment, along with the microorganisms (viruses) these particles carry.”
But Valley View offered families pathways to medical or religious mask exemptions. On the religious side, their form required a “religious official” to submit a signed statement that “an established religious requirement exists” preventing a particular student from wearing a mask.
Grant offered to sign the forms for anyone in the community, and eventually signed for over 150 students in Valley View, as well as students in Miamisburg, Springboro, and other districts.
Grant pointed to a few Bible verses, including one from 1 Corinthians, saying, “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God.” She confirmed that she didn’t ask the students she signed for whether they believed that.
“It’s not my job to prove, or really ask, and it’s not my business what their religion necessarily is,” Grant said. “I’m a Constitutional Christian. I think the Constitution is there for a reason. God created our bodies in a perfect way. People told me I was exploiting Jesus. People can think what they want to think but in my heart I feel that God has called me to help people through this situation.”
Some districts, including Miamisburg and Greeneview, have rejected mass religious exemption requests. Valley View Superintendent Ben Richards said despite the strict requirements on his district’s form, his school board discussed the issue and “did not want to restrict people” too much, so the district approved all 169 religious exemption requests it received.
“I think there was a belief that most people would just do the right thing, for lack of a better phrase,” Richards said.
The district, which has around 1,800 students, required a personal statement from families seeking a religious exemption, “describing the religious basis” for their mask objection. Richards said a majority used “very similar language,” including the Corinthians verse Grant cited.
Valley View also requires a parent to sign a statement that says, “I understand that choosing not to wear a facial covering places all at an increased risk for contracting COVID-19.”
While the number of COVID cases across the Dayton region began a decline in mid-September, Valley View reported a surge in COVID cases the week of Sept. 27, with 39 students and staff testing positive — three times the level of previous weeks. The district sent all 4th graders home for three days because of significant illness.
“Am I concerned about a spread of COVID because of kids being unmasked? Yes, that’s a concern,” Richards said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever have any data to show a cause-and-effect on that (locally).”
Dr. Adam Mezoff, chief medical officer at Dayton Children’s Hospital, said this week that preliminary data shows schools with mandatory masking have less than half the rate of COVID infections compared to schools without mask mandates.
Grant said she disagrees with the local, state and federal health officials and believes “masks are causing far more harm then providing protection.” She sent links to numerous studies and articles, some peer-reviewed, some not, in support of that belief, from both the pre- and post-COVID era.
Grant wrote, “I am not heartless. I care if someone dies or gets sick. But telling children they have to wear a mask to prevent protect someone else is psychological warfare.”
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