Throughout the unorthodox 2020-21 academic year, parents have pleaded with their respective school boards to adopt various motions. First, as students struggled with remote learning, there was a call for a hybrid option. Several weeks later, there was a strong push for a full reopening.
Now, school board members are tasked with a new dilemma – deciding whether or not to keep or terminate the mask mandate for students and staff.
During its special meeting on May 20, the Council Rock board became one of the first in the county to officially vote on the matter. The group unanimously decided that, effective upon the start of the 2021-22 academic year on Aug. 30, face coverings shall be optional for all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status. This will be subject to any contrary state order that may be in effect at that time. A cyber option will remain.
A slew of parents came forward to demand the mask mandate be lifted for all students for the remainder of the current year.
They shared statistics on how schools aren’t “superspreaders” and said kids shouldn’t have to bear the burden of the pandemic “on their tiny shoulders.” Many shared stories of how their children can’t breathe while wearing the mask, but are afraid to ask for a break out of fear they’ll be reprimanded.
Several students also spoke up. An eighth-grader at Holland Middle School expressed sadness over not seeing the bottom halves of his peers’ and teachers’ faces since last year.
However, the board can’t legally lift the mask mandate right now.
As it stands, only vaccinated individuals can go maskless in most situations. Those who are unvaccinated can remove the mask when 70 percent of Pennsylvania adults are vaccinated. This number is currently hovering at around 50 percent.
Board member Ed Salamon questioned solicitor Robert Cox about what would happen if the district went against the CDC and state Department of Health.
“Nothing good would come from that,” said Cox. “It would be a direct and willful violation of a state authority that has jurisdiction over the school district.”
It was also asked whether or not the district could allow vaccinated students and staff to remove their masks in the buildings, which would be in compliance with the CDC. Superintendent Dr. Robert Fraser said there would be too many logistical issues to figure out so late in the school year, especially since only a portion of high schoolers are vaccinated.
While some board members expressed annoyance over not being able to lift the mask mandate sooner than the fall, Denise Brooks was OK with erring on the side of caution and not giving families the option just yet.
“An individual person’s mask choice could impact people who could be compromised by another person’s choice,” she said. “There are people who are immunocompromised, have health conditions or situations. For now, that’s not an option.”
Michael Thorwart announced his intention to write a policy that states no Council Rock employee can ask about the vaccination status of anyone. This, he said, should remain private information unless an individual offers to share it.
“I don’t want that ever coming up in a classroom, I don’t want that ever coming up in a hallway,” he said. “It’s over.”
As guidance from the CDC continues to change on a rapid basis, the school board is prepared to convene another special meeting if needed to revisit the mask conversation.
In Bucks County, COVID-19 cases are dropping, with the seven-day average of new infections reaching a seven-month low of 57 per day earlier this month. Fraser has hope that, even if the mask mandate stays for the rest of this school year, it will be lifted well in advance of the Aug. 30 start date.
“I really don’t want to see anyone, students or staff members, be required to wear a mask or any other kind of face covering in the fall,” he said. “Bottom line, it’s time to resume a certain sense of normalcy in our schools.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org