“No more masks! No more masks!”
This chant erupted last Thursday inside the Fallsington Elementary School multi-purpose room, where Pennsbury School District parents were packed to the brim. The majority of attendees showed up that evening to passionately protest mandatory mask-wearing for students in front of the board of school directors, who were to vote on the matter.
Despite hearing countless arguments in support of an optional mask-wearing policy, the board unanimously decided to mandate face coverings for all students, faculty and visitors for the start of the 2021-22 academic year.
Typically, school boards divide an agenda up into segments and vote on each one separately. However, when she felt tension in the room about to reach a breaking point, board chair Christine Toy-Dragoni made a motion to approve the entire agenda in a single roll call vote. A motion to adjourn the meeting was made seconds later as an attendee screamed, “You all need to burn in hell,” amid a chorus of booing.
For local parents who want to choose whether or not their child wears a mask to school, the situation wasn’t any better at Centennial School District’s board meeting last Tuesday. In a vote of 6-3, a mask mandate was approved.
Board members Charley Martin, Flemming Godiksen and Mary Alice Brancato were against the policy being approved. When announcing her vote, Brancato said, “Absolutely not,” as the room broke out in applause. As the final decision was made, similar to Pennsbury, attendees furiously jumped out of their chairs. Board president Patti Crossan was forced to call for a 5-minute recess.
Both school boards are following the new guidance outlined by Dr. David Damsker, director of the Bucks County Health Department. Two weeks ago, he recommended that school districts make masking optional for the start of the 2021-22 school year. But last week, he backtracked and recommended masking for all students, which is in line with the CDC. Bucks County is currently in a “high” level of COVID-19 transmission.
“While our COVID-19 cases among school-aged children remain very low, hospitals are growing concerned that any pediatric COVID-19 cases could stress the system,” Damsker said.
At Centennial, Martin, a former Bucks County Commissioner, suggested that the district implement “targeted temporary mitigation.” He said guidance from the CDC “changes with the wind” and encompasses the entire nation. According to Martin, regulations should be based on conditions specifically in Southampton, Ivyland and Warminster.
“The data that we will enact at the school board of this district is the information that pertains to those three municipalities,” he said. “I could care less what’s happening in Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and Miami.”
During the public comment portions of both meetings, parents fiercely outlined what they think are negative impacts of masks on children. Overarching reasons were anxiety, lack of oxygen and delays in speech and the ability to communicate effectively. Dr. Rashida Ghauri, a Pennsbury mother and healthcare professional, explained how more children have died from the flu than COVID-19, but masks were never recommended during flu season. She added that board members were not elected to make medical decisions about other people’s children.
“You know nothing about it,” said Ghauri.
A Centennial father, who seemed determined to send his child to school without a mask no matter the outcome of the vote, challenged the board, “What are you prepared to do if a child doesn’t wear a mask?”
Meanwhile, a number of parents are learning to live with the boards’ decisions if it means their child can be in the classroom five days a week. Last year, students learned remotely until one-by-one, districts implemented hybrid and then in-person offerings.
Unless the COVID-19 situation gets dramatically worse, students won’t be required to wear masks during recess and while playing most sports. Masks will be required on school buses, which are considered public transportation, much to the anger of many parents.
Centennial Superintendent Dr. Dana Bedden said the health and safety plan will be revisited on a regular basis and updated as necessary.
“We’re all free to disagree,” he said. “I just ask that we try to do it respectfully as we go through this process.”
As for Pennsbury’s Superintendent Dr. Thomas Smith, whose first public meeting after taking over from recently retired Dr. William Gretzula was quite eventful, said that mandatory masking is “the best chance for returning full-time starting Aug. 30.” His goal is to close gaps in student learning and avoid short- or long-term closures, which he said could happen if masks are optional.
Smith must also take into consideration public concerns about Dr. Cherrissa Gibson, who was hired in 2020 as Pennsbury’s first director of equity, inclusion and education. Community members, especially Tim Daly, have consistently called for Gibson’s resignation or termination. They think she’s implementing racist and problematic teachings in the classroom. Daly and other parents also expressed their dislike of the current school board and how it purposefully removed a portion of public comment from the recording of a previous meeting.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org