Several school boards in Bucks County had the same issue to consider last week – whether to make masking optional or mandatory for the start of the 2021-22 academic year. However, drastically different decisions were made at the meetings of the Neshaminy, Bensalem, Council Rock and Bristol Borough districts.
During the Neshaminy meeting on the evening of Aug. 24, it was decided in a vote of 5-4 that students in grades K-8 will be required to wear masks until Oct. 1, which Superintendent Dr. Rob McGee called a “sunset date.” At that time, the board will vote to either extend the mandate or allow masks to be optional. All students must wear a mask while on a school bus. In the classroom, they’ll be separated by a distance of 3 feet.
Tensions among parents were high throughout the meeting, with half demanding the right to decide what’s best for their child, and the other half pleading for mandatory masking. Board chair Stephen Pirritano, who said he has no intention of extending the mandate, asked attendees to be respectful of each other and set a good example for young people watching the meeting from home.
“The reason we are here is to secure the best environment for our children’s education,” he said. “Just because someone doesn’t share or agree with your viewpoint does not make them your enemy.”
The situation took a different turn the next night in Bensalem. This board’s motion to implement mandatory masking failed in a vote of 4-5, meaning these students have an option. Board president Kim Rivera, vice president Eric Price, Heather Nicholas, Marc Cohen and Michelle Benitez were in favor of optional masking. Similar to Neshaminy, masks will be required on buses and students will be separated by 3 feet in the classroom.
“I don’t have the authority to tell parents what to do with their children,” said Rivera. “I wouldn’t want somebody to tell me what to do with my children. It’s a parent’s choice.”
Benitez said she wants to help parents in her community “take back freedom.”
Stephanie Ferrandez took issue with one father, who during the public comment portion of the meeting said that any board member who votes “yes” for masking has a “special place in hell.”
“We have to vote on something for everyone,” she said, adding that no board member in any district was prepared to make such a difficult decision. “If you’re upset with us, we still have to go to the grocery store with you.”
Rachel Fingles, who explained how she’s a lawyer not a medical expert, called out President Joe Biden, Gov. Tom Wolf and all three Bucks County Commissioners for tasking local school boards with this decision. Fingles, who voted for mandatory masking, said on Facebook that this meeting was “the low point of my tenure on board.”
“Watching the downfall of science, common sense, community and care for our neighbors was the most disheartening thing to come out of that meeting,” she wrote. “I am scared by our society’s rejection of science. I am saddened by how we let this issue ask the question, ‘What about me?’ instead of, ‘What about us?’ ”
On Aug. 26, Council Rock held a special meeting that lasted nearly five and a half hours and stretched to the early hours of the morning. Earlier in the summer, the board approved a version of the health and safety plan that included optional masking. This was in line with Bucks County Health Department Director Dr. David Damsker’s guidance at the time. But a few weeks ago, Damsker changed his recommendation to mandatory masking. Area children’s hospitals fear a spike in childhood COVID-19 cases would stress the system.
Superintendent Dr. Robert Fraser urged the board to heed Damsker’s advice. After much discussion, they voted 8-1 to keep the current health and safety plan in place with three adjustments: the establishment of a COVID-19 dashboard; when the district learns of a positive case among students or staff, the Bucks County Health Department will be notified; and also when there’s a positive case, families of students in that particular classroom will be notified.
The topic of masking is slated to be revisited at the next board meeting. Denise Brooks, who has consistently been an advocate for masking, was the single “no” vote. Other board members, including Kristin Marcell, suggested a compromise between mandatory and optional masking. For example, if the number of confirmed positive cases in a classroom reaches three in a 5-day period, masks would be required for five days following the last positive test. Her peers weren’t opposed to this idea, which may be up for discussion at the next meeting.
Also on Aug. 26, the Bristol Borough school board took a vote. At the recommendation of Superintendent Dr. Rose Minniti, local and state health departments and the CDC, it was unanimously decided to make masks mandatory. This topic will be revisited at each board meeting, which are held about every 15 days.
“I think it demonstrates to the public that we can be as responsive as we can,” said John D’Angelo. “There’s a lot of variables. I don’t think any of us up here wants our child to wear a mask. Once we’ve got some data that it’s more safe, then we can always vote to change it.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com