With COVID-19 cases once again on the rise due to the Omicron variant, local school boards are once again forced to contemplate whether or not masking should be required among students and staff.
During the recent meetings of Neshaminy and Council Rock, it was decided that masks will remain optional for both districts. Both will also forego contact tracing, a process that has become too daunting for administrators to handle alone. Additionally, there was much discussion on the topic of quarantine.
“It’s our belief that it should be left to families and their doctors to decide what the rules are and when a close contact should come back to school. There’s two different things. A positive individual, they’re going to be excluded for five days and then come back with a mask for five days,” explained Neshaminy Superintendent Dr. Rob McGee. “The close contacts, we’re not going to identify and exclude because we don’t have the means to do it and do it well without changing the educational environment.”
At Council Rock, the health and safety plan was updated to include slightly different language. If a student or staff member is still sick with symptoms after the five-day quarantine, as recently implemented by the CDC, they should continue to stay home.
“Even if you think you’re sick, err on the side of caution and please stay home,” said board member Bob Hickey.
While some board members, such as Yota Palli, want COVID-positive individuals required to wear a mask for five calendar days upon their return to school, it was decided that masking will be “strongly recommended.”
“A parent cannot decide if a child is infectious after the five days,” argued Palli. “You’re either contagious or you’re not.”
During Council Rock’s lengthy 4.5-hour meeting, the group analyzed each bullet of the health and safety plan to see if anything needed to be updated after its last revision several months ago. The board was divided for the most part, with the majority wanting to give families the freedom to decide what’s best. Hickey, president Ed Salamon, Michael Thorwart, Mike Roosevelt and Kristen Marcell voted “yes” for the plan, while Palli, Edward Tate, Mariann McKee and Joseph Hidalgo were “no” votes.
“I cannot go in a direction of mandating masks for kids in school. Out of all the mitigation efforts that is designed to stop or slow the spread, the mask mandate is probably the least effective and I’m not in favor,” said Hickey.
“Ultimately, this is a family choice,” said Roosevelt. “That’s what the Constitution of the United States and Pennsylvania recommends – freedom of choice.”
Meanwhile, Tate and Palli stressed that advice from both the CDC and CHOP states that schools should continue indoor masking requirements due to rising COVID-19 cases and strained resources at hospitals.
“I think the responsible thing for us to do is to reinstate a mask mandate and I think that would include medical exemption for anyone who requires it by providing a physician’s letter or some other professional authority,” said Tate. “That’s not too much to ask.”
“I try to follow the guidelines of experts. We are not experts,” said Palli, who said the health and safety plan could be relaxed in a month or so when the current surge comes down. “Right now, we cannot afford to do that. I’m afraid we’ll end up closing schools because a lot of people will end up getting sick unnecessarily.”
Regarding potential school closures, Neshaminy’s McGee warned that this is a very real possibility due to staff shortages.
“Today was awfully close. In one particular building, we’re down a third of the certified teaching staff. A third. We were able to keep that building open by sending support there. Every certified staff member that wasn’t tied to a building went to that building, administrators went to that building,” he said. “Not the best plan, but the best way to keep kids in school. The problem is, that gets worse. If there’s a second building that joins them at that rate, the cavalry’s already gone to the one building.”
In scenarios when there is a COVID outbreak in a classroom, the Council Rock school board granted Dr. Susan Elliott, the assistant superintendent substituting for Dr. Rob Fraser, who requested a period of leave, the power to take action. She can transition that classroom to virtual learning for several days if the Bucks County Department of Health recommends it, or if she’s unable to get in touch with the department for advice and needs to act in a timely manner.
At both districts, students no longer have permanent assigned seating, something that was implemented because of contact tracing. Also at both, parents remain divided. While some are excited over the less stringent health and safety plans, others fear that children and their families will get sick and schools will shut down indefinitely again. One such parent called out Neshaminy board president John Allen, who retracted his previous support of a mask mandate for elementary schoolers.
“Between then and now, we’ve added, for one, the bipolar ionization project, the cleaning of our schools, the increased air change,” he said. “All of those mitigation measures we added with the intention of keeping our children as safe as we possibly could in our schools. That’s what changed. We were able to provide that. The availability of vaccines throughout the younger generation also was taken into consideration.”
Neshaminy board member Stephen Pirritano echoed Allen’s sentiment. He said, “I feel very confident in the plan that Dr. McGee and his staff put together … As we transition from a pandemic to an endemic stage, we need to make sure that we try to bring normalcy back to the education setting because that’s what our children deserve.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org