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To mask or not to mask: Power to decide returns to school boards

Almost all Bucks districts make masking optional; Bristol Township and Pennsbury to vote in new year

Voicing his opinion: Jim Cristea, a teacher at Truman High School, speaks against the masking mandate at a recent Bristol Township school board meeting. Source: Bristol Township School District YouTube

Tensions are once again rising during local school board meetings as the power to mandate masking has returned to the hands of school board directors.

In September, an order by Acting Secretary of Health Dr. Alison Beam went into effect, requiring masks to be worn inside all K-12 buildings by both children and adults, regardless of vaccination status. Gov. Tom Wolf intended for the order to expire on Jan. 17, at which point it would be up to school boards to decide whether or not to keep the mask mandate.

But on Dec. 10, the state Supreme Court shifted that power earlier than expected, ruling that Beam didn’t have the authority to make such an order. The mask mandate was ultimately thrown out by the court. By Monday, nearly every school district in Bucks County sent notices to families, informing them that masks would be optional immediately.

The exceptions were Centennial, Bristol Township and Pennsbury.

During a school board meeting on Dec. 14, the Centennial school board voted 5-4 to make masks optional for students and staff (they’re still required on buses). Board president Charles Martin, Jane Schrader Lynch, Flemming Godiksen, Mark Gindhart and Mary Alice Brancato voted “yes,” while Patti Crossan, Shelley Eilenberg, Michael Lydon and Tony Sadowski were against it.

Gindhart explained that he’s not anti-mask, but rather anti-mandate, and wants to give parents “the voice that was stolen from them.” Brancato, who shared that she’s vaccinated and wears a mask, echoed his sentiment. She said, “But that’s my choice. I don’t feel I have a right to make other people’s choices.” Lynch reflected on how this topic has “haunted” her and stated, “For me, I would vote to give you that choice and the burden will be on you, not me.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Crossan warned that hospitals are experiencing 15-hour wait times due to increases in COVID patients: “If we remove masks and people get ill, it’ll put more burdens on our hospitals.” Sadowski added, “As much as I hate these things [masks] and want them gone, it’s not over and we can’t wish them away.”

With only a few days left in the school year, Bristol Township school board members decided to maintain the “status quo” and uphold the mask mandate until the new year. The board is slated to discuss it and take action accordingly during its next meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 18.

Pennsbury followed suit and did not include the mask mandate on its Dec. 16 agenda. According to Superintendent Dr. Tom Smith, no changes are taking place just yet because of the increase in local COVID-19 cases, the new Omicron variant and the impending winter break, during which students and staff will likely be around more people than usual. Smith shared that the seven-day average of new cases is 367, which is more than double from a month ago.

Like Bristol Township, the Pennsbury board is slated to revisit the topic at its next meeting on Thursday, Jan. 20.

“We don’t see this going down, so everyone’s going to have to come to grips with this,” said Smith.

However, he unveiled a few things that Pennsbury is looking to improve, including an updated quarantine procedure for asymptomatic close contacts in an effort to keep more kids in school; notifying close contacts by school and ceasing whole-school notifications; and eliminating the daily online screening requirement.

At each meeting, attendees were split down the middle regarding the masking mandate. For those who want it to continue, they fear that cases will rise exponentially, affecting immunocompromised students and their loved ones and possibly forcing a school closure if the numbers get too high.

Parents against it argued that their children are suffering from anxiety due to the masks. An eighth-grader at Centennial stated how she has a poor relationship with her teacher: “These masks have divided the students and teachers because all we do is get yelled at for wearing them incorrectly.” One woman openly shared that she and her children haven’t worn masks for months at stores and other public locations, which led to an angry outcry from other attendees.

Jim Cristea, a teacher at Harry S. Truman High School, demanded to know if optional masking will be a guarantee for January. He said, “It’s difficult to even tell who’s speaking. It’s December and I can honestly say that I still do not recognize some of the students in my classroom.”

Meanwhile, as the discussion surrounding masks continues, school districts are also dealing with the slew of recent gun and violence threats. Over the weekend of Dec. 11, the Bensalem Township School District was made aware of a threatening social media post against the high school. Though Bensalem Police deemed the threat uncredible, parents were livid that an official statement wasn’t made until Monday morning.

“It’s not a hard message to send,” said former school board member Rachel Fingles during the board’s Dec. 15 meeting. Fingles expressed annoyance that the mask repeal announcement went out with no delay. “But if there’s a threat to safety, we don’t hear anything about it. We have to do better.”

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com

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