Debate over whether students should wear masks to school this fall shows no signs of cooling off in districts across the region, with the start of classes coming as the rate of covid-19 transmission rises in the region.
Harrisburg officials have recommended local districts follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has recommended masks for everyone inside schools, whether or not they have received a covid vaccine. But the lack of a firm mandate from the state has put local school boards in the hot seat of the mask debate.
Many boards have approved mask option policies that allow families to decide whether their children should wear face coverings in school buildings. But, reflecting the hidden division between those they represent, the decisions have not always been unanimous.
Dr Michael Zorch, a retired emergency physician and member of the Grand Latrobe School Board, heads the council’s health and safety committee, which is responsible for examining local pandemic conditions. But he was among those outvoted in a July 27 6-3 decision to make masks optional for students, staff and visitors in the 2021-22 school year.
Zorch acknowledged the pressure local councils are under when implementing covid-19 protocols and noted that his stance on masks has evolved with the recent increase in cases.
âWhen we first talked about this, cases were on the go in (Westmoreland) County,â Zorch said. âMy initial thought was, ‘Our kids don’t need masks at school.’ Then all of a sudden the numbers went up.
Zorch said the school board should not ignore advice offered by organizations such as the CDC that focus on public health.
âIf to keep the community and our children safe, we have to wear a mask for a while, that’s what we have to do,â he said. ” It’s my opinion. I think by doing that we keep the kids in school.
âThe harm for the children was that they weren’t in school. There is nothing that I have seen anywhere that says putting a mask on children hurts them. “
When the Highland School Board met on Monday, member Kristie Babinscak passionately advocated for the district to demand masks, but could not find support from any of the other six members in attendance.
âThey don’t want to take a stand,â she said. âEveryone on this board has a right to do whatever they want to do. I somehow knew I was making a bold statement.
âI’m going to do what I think is in the best interest of these kids and the community, and I’m going to do it every time,â she said. âIf I have people who hate me, I have people who hate me. No one said it would be an easy job.
Since Highlands has chosen to stick with the optional masks for students and staff, and has made its position clear, Babinsack said community feedback was mixed.
“There are worried parents in the community who fear that their children will go back to school and be infected with covid or be quarantined, or in the worst case, that the school will shut down as it has. did last year, âshe said. âI want the children to go back to school. This is not the problem for me. I want them to come back safe and sound.
Dr Rhonda Laughlin, a local optometrist, was among the majority who approved the Grand Latrobe’s optional mask plan. She noted that the school board will continue to assess any new information related to the pandemic that presents itself. The health and safety committee was supposed to do just that on Friday.
âWe’re just going to take all the information, like we always do, and make the best decision out of it,â Laughlin said. “We have a lot of smart minds in this school.”
Because Governor Tom Wolf allows mask decisions to happen locally, the state teachers’ union, like parents, is seeking a desired outcome from school boards. In his case, the Pennsylvania State Education Association is advocating for a mask requirement in schools.
“We hope that school districts with optional masking policies will re-evaluate their positions, in light of the recent increase in covid cases, and put in place more stringent masking requirements before the start of the school year,” said Chris Lilienthal, Assistant Director of Communications for the PSEA. âStudents under the age of 12 still do not have access to any of the covid-19 vaccines available in the United States.
âThe last thing we want to do, as we fill public school classrooms with enthusiastic young learners, is to throw caution to the wind. This could cause many students to become infected with the virus, take it home to their families, and make themselves and other sick. Keeping students safe while they learn in school must be our top priority, and that means hiding in school. “
The audience at recent Greensburg Salem school board meetings included strong opponents of the masking as well as advocates for the mask, but the debate among the board members was more nuanced.
On August 12, the board voted 6-3 to adopt a policy recommending but not requiring masks inside school buildings. District administrators said the description of the masks as “recommended” mirror language issued by the CDC, but board member Robin Savage was among three dissidents who argued that the use of the word could force parents to feel compelled to make the pupils wear masks. Instead, they suggested that the policy state that masks are “optional.”
Savage said her stance didn’t mean she was anti-mask. She noted that the district’s optional mask plan should give way to any mask warrant that may be ordered by a higher authority.
Greensburg Salem has a pandemic committee that includes school administrators and nurses, but Savage has expressed frustration that local districts have not received clear direction on mask use from senior levels of government.
âI think we’re all trying to do our best,â she said. âWe’re getting information from the CDC, but it should come from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Department of Education. The governor’s office should come up with something.
Until that happens, she said, the decision to hide in school should be up to every family.
âFor me, it’s the parents’ decision until a warrant is issued by the federal or state government,â she said. âI don’t think a local council should issue such warrants without having a long conversation.
Greensburg Salem board members Ron Mellinger Jr., Lynna Thomas and Frank Gazze all voted for the “recommended” language regarding masks, which Mellinger said was favored by the pandemic committee.
Mellinger, the chairman of the board, said he made sure mask advocate Dr Dakota Peterson, a 2010 district graduate who works at the UPMC Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, had the opportunity to address the board of directors.
âThere are two sides to this,â he said. âIn a world as divided as ours, I have always wanted to hear from both sides. “
âGreensburg Salem takes this very seriously,â Gazze said of the mask policy. âWe will always monitor things and try to make the best decision that will keep everyone safe. “
Barring a government directive, Thomas said, the board should look to experts in science and medicine for advice on covid protocols.
âFollowing these recommendations is the most consistent and fair way to make decisions,â she said.
The Fox Chapel area school board faced an angry and noisy crowd on August 9 when it voted to demand masks. In addition to the boos, one person appeared to give a Nazi salute to the board.
Some residents said the council took away their freedom, but Eric Hamilton, a council member, said the decision preserved everyone’s freedom to be in school full time.
The New Kensington-Arnold School Board has approved its plan requiring masks without discussion, debate or a lot of public comment one way or the other. Board chairman Tim Beckes said he was a bit surprised, given what has happened elsewhere in the region and across the country.
âWe didn’t have a lot of problems last year with the masking. The kids were great to accept the masks, âBeckes said. âI think it helped the parents to accept it, the community and everyone as a whole. They didn’t really turn out to be a problem for us last year.
New Kensington-Arnold will post a poll on its website by Tuesday asking parents whether their children will come to school or learn remotely, Superintendent Chris Sefcheck said. The district expects most students to come back and prepare for it, he said.
Whether or not masks are necessary in New Kensington-Arnold schools is linked to the rate of transmission of the virus in the region. The big unknown now, Beckes said, is the delta variant.
âIt’s the safest decision we can make,â Beckes said. “I would be devastated if we didn’t and someone who didn’t have access to the vaccine got it and got seriously ill, and I didn’t do everything I could to keep them safe.”
The Penn-Trafford School Board voted unanimously on Monday in favor of an optional mask plan. The action came after asking parents in the district about the issue and hearing comments from both sides at two public meetings.
According to district administrators, the survey generated more than 1,900 responses, with a majority at all grade levels in favor of optional masks. The maintenance of the optional masks was also supported by the school doctor.
âWe wanted to get the big pictureâ of the covid masking problem, said Jim Matarazzo, member of the board of directors of Penn-Trafford. âPeople had very deep and passionate opinions on both sides of the ledger. We want to respect everyone.
Another board member, Toni Ising, listened to “the people we have put in place to medically guide us through this.” She also âlistened to everyone who spoke at these meetings and followed the research they talked about. Then I draw my own conclusions.