CELINA, Ohio (WDTN) – Mercer County came to the attention of Ohio on Aug. 5, when Gov. Mike DeWine called the county “the most concerning in the state right now” during his televised COVID-19 briefing.

Cases were skyrocketing in a county with a population of 41,172, according to the latest U.S. Census numbers. DeWine reiterated this statement on Friday on his Twitter account, writing local health officials said “COVID-19 is in all corners of the county and affecting people of all ages.

The outbreak couldn’t have occurred at a worse time for Mercer County school officials, who have to juggle education with medical concerns.

The schools in the county (Celina, Coldwater, Fort Recovery, Marion Local, Parkway and St. Henry) decided, as a group, to return to classes five days per week once it begins the 2020-2021 school year. Each district offered online options for parents who felt the environment was too dangerous for their kids to return. According to Celina City Schools Superintendent Dr. Ken Schmiesing, 93 percent of Celina’s students have decided to return to in-school classes while 98 percent of students in the county will be returning to classes and denying the online option.

DeWine’s concerns are serious enough he talked with Mercer County Health District Administrator Jason Menchhofer on Saturday morning, then later in the day had a virtual online meeting with officials from every district in the county and several health officials.

“He urged a lot of caution,” Menchhofer said. “He said experts in other areas outside his circle had recommended not going back to school if the positive testing rate was above 5 percent. He gave us that number on Saturday and at that time we as a state were (just slightly) above five.”

Menchhoffer said one doctor he talked to in the county on Tuesday said unofficially, his tests were coming back positive at 20 percent. But Menchhofer said those numbers were unofficial, and they were also not a cross-section of the population.

DeWine voiced many concerns, according to Menchhofer. He said local officials needed to consider that the local situation with COVID-19 would be immediately be brought into schools when they open and then spread further when those students go home or visit relatives.

The state’s concerns and the county’s usual independent and self-contained demeanor could be coming to a head, but Menchhofer said he thinks the county’s schools are trying to achieve the right balance.

But it hasn’t been easy. Menchhofer said state orders asking for social distancing and the wearing of masks weren’t popular in Celina when they were first issued earlier in the outbreak. When a mask order was issued across the state several weeks ago, Menchhofer said the attitude in the county changed for the positive, and he’s been pleased with overall compliance. But following orders from the state government often go against the instincts of those in the county, who aren’t used to being the subject of statewide press conferences and are usually handling things themselves.

“It comes back to our independent and conservative attitude locally and people don’t like to be ordered around,” Menchhofer said.

That independence has served the county well at times. The county’s economy is built on agriculture and small business – two traditionally rugged and independent ventures. That independence also comes from its location – the county is over an hour from the closest shopping mall, it’s a county away from the nearest interstate and there’s one movie theater in the county. It’s funneled its sense of pride and entertainment into high school sports.

Menchhofer said the independent spirit doesn’t stop at the gym but is also a key factor in how he communities in the county approach problems. When northwest Celina was struck by an EF3 tornado during the Memorial Day Tornado Outbreak in 2019, local residents and those from nearby towns began cleaning up debris as city workers were doing the same. Within days most of the city streets were cleaned, except those with exceptional damage.

Schools balance socialization and safety

DeWine told local officials on Saturday to not take any security in recent death and hospitalization numbers. He said those numbers often lag. As of Tuesday, the county had 631 cases, 71 hospitalizations and 13 deaths.

Schmiesing said schools in the county are waiting on a final mandate on masks for students before putting together a timeline of when classes will start. He said the districts have worked together to try and implement the best plans possible. He said on days the weather is nice, they would consider allowing classes to be taught outside.

He said he’s also concerned if students don’t have school and extra-curricular activities to keep them busy. He said keeping them in a routine, in class and involved could be better than other options.

“The concern is more of what’s happening in the community in total,” Schmiesing said. “We’d love if it worked where kids go back to school, they have teachers and coaches to help and influence them as far as what their activities are in the evening and help students make wise choices. If they are busy in athletic activities and doing homework they’re less apt to be outside and in groups together, which is strongly discouraged right now with the pandemic.”

Menchhofer said he doesn’t see much of a difference between a blended model – with kids attending classes two to three days a week – versus five days. He believes information and education are the keys to beating back the virus.

“What we hope to do in the near future is reach a broader segment of the population with recommendations,” Menchhofer said.

For the latest information on COVID-19 in Ohio, visit the Ohio Department of Health website. If you live in Mercer County, you can get health information from the Mercer County Public Health website.