Local Parents React to Schools’ Implementation of Mask Mandate
(Photos by Dave Cyphert of ProPoint Media Photography)
The mandate, which requires face coverings in K-12 schools and child care centers, was issued on August 31, with enforcement beginning a week later.
However, one of the issues with the mandates seems to be the inconsistencies within the order and the Pennsylvania Department of Education guidance on the order, particularly in relation to exemptions from the order.
During a recent Clarion-Limestone School Board meeting, Director of Special Education, Jason Edmonds, addressed some of these issues and how they are being handled at Clarion-Limestone.
Edmonds noted that the order includes an exception for any case where wearing a face-covering could “cause a medical condition or exacerbate an existing one, including respiratory issues, that impede breathing, a mental health condition, or a disability,” but did not indicate that the condition or disability must be documented or supported by a medical professional, and nowhere in the order did it outline a process for submission or approval of exceptions, leaving school districts to decide how to handle exemptions.
Clarion-Limestone’s broad interpretation of the order in terms of its exemptions has been lauded by many parents.
“I believe 100% it’s the parents’ choice. It’s everyone’s choice. We are protected by the United States constitution. Our school district, Clarion-Limestone, is doing the right thing and letting people choose for themselves,” local resident Mandy Rupp said.
Different approaches in other districts have not been met with the same enthusiasm, particularly with many local districts, including Union, Brookville, Clarion Area, Oil City, and Punxsutawney, requiring documentation of a medical or mental health condition for exemption, and setting up a range of consequences for students who refuse to comply.
“It’s is absolutely atrocious that our children are being segregated. Why are they the only ones forced to wear it?? Yet they only have to wear it when they aren’t eating or playing, so tell me why they are forced to wear it while basically sitting at their desks,” Taylor Burkhardt said.
“I think the mandate is ridiculous. It is our job as parents to look after our kids and their health. Honestly, my girls do not want to get in trouble, so they have just been wearing the masks. My oldest has anxiety as it is, but throw a mask on with the threat of getting suspended for being caught not wearing it properly, and it makes things much worse for her,” Julie Harbison Wolfe noted.
At Union School District, administrators had initially taken a similar approach to Clarion-Limestone, allowing parents to exempt their children from the mask order through a parent affidavit form without any supporting documentation.
However, after receiving notification that the Pennsylvania Department of Education will consider a district “out of compliance” if they accept parental affidavit forms without accompanying, supporting medical documentation, and following the Section 504 identification process, the district changed their implementation to comply.
“Starting on Monday, September 20, 2021, all students who have not qualified and received a Section 504 Plan shall be required to follow the Department of Health’s masking mandate while in school buildings and while being transported on school district provided buses/vans,” Superintendent John Kimmel said in a letter to Union families on September 13.
According to Union’s website, any student without the proper exception who does not wear a mask will be redirected to put a mask on, provided a mask if they do not have one, and then sent to the gymnasium until they either put on a mask or their parent comes to get them.
“Union School District has segregated kids and refused to educate them for refusing masks,” Shannon Rumbarger said.
“Just today (Monday), over 30 students from the High School were sent home for refusing to comply! They were also told that they would not be allowed to participate in sports or attend Homecoming if they do not comply! Those who stayed had Chromebooks and phones taken away and were told they would receive zeros for any assignments or tests missed today if they didn’t comply!” she added.
However, not all parents in the district are satisfied, even with the changes.
Local resident and Union parent Leslie Prymus said she’s had several discussions with administrators at the district over her concerns about people not wearing masks in the schools.
“Kids like mine suffer when others don’t comply. People with cystic fibrosis wear masks every time they are in public due to already having issues with breathing, long before COVID. It won’t hurt the kids to wear a mask, but it would hurt my son to get COVID again,” Prymus said.
She noted that her son told her that the mask mandate was still not being enforced at Union Elementary School on Tuesday, though she heard from other students that it was being enforced at the high school.
The change in Union’s enforcement of the mask mandate spurred some parents to take part in a protest at the school on Tuesday, where parents chanted “our children our choice.”
Nevertheless, with many district administrators pointing to the need to comply with the order or face a slew of possible consequences, some parents are sympathetic to the issue.
“I am more interested in what power the school boards and districts have when these mandates are issued from the state? Do they have any choice but to comply, if they don’t what happens to state funding which small districts depend on?” Misty Marsh asked.
These and other questions arose at the Keystone School board meeting on Monday.
“The lack of students wearing facial coverings has not been lost on the Pennsylvania Department of Education or the Pennsylvania Department of Health, who has provided the district with a list of consequences for not fully and vigorously following the order,” Keystone Superintendent Michael McCormick stated.
“These consequences include financial penalties on board members at a per student, per day rate, financial penalties to the district, removal of the district’s liability insurance, removal of the administration’s educational certificate or the superintendent’s commission, investigation by the United Stated Department of Education’s Division of Civil Rights, civil lawsuits brought upon the district and personal lawsuits brought upon board members and administration.
“Parents cannot opt-out their children from wearing a mask if they’re opposed to the face coverings. On Monday, September 27, all students, if the board will approve this, be required to wear a face mask or a face shield.”
McCormick said students not wearing a mask would be provided with one, and if they or their parents keep insisting on non-compliance with the masking order, the student will be sent home.
His comments were met by intense criticism and repudiation from the audience, whose frustrations, which had been building since the start of the meeting, finally simmered over, and impromptu speeches from various audience members opposing the mandate took over the meeting for nearly a half hour until the furor died down enough for the meeting to continue.
When the board reached the issue on the agenda, Board President John Slagle stood up and addressed the board and audience, explaining it might be prudent for the board to table the vote until next week because the mask mandate might become a moot issue by then. Though the suggestion was met with some criticism, it was ultimately decided by the board to follow Sagle’s advice, to be reconsidered during a special meeting of the board to be announced at a later date.
While much of the focus has been on the implementation of exemptions for the mask order, other inconsistencies in the order and its implementation are also troubling to some area parents.
“If there was a standard to follow that would be one thing. But I have seen kids in paper masks, cloth masks, knitted masks, even some with holes cut out. While the proper mask, worn properly can help reduce the spread of germs, these kids don’t know that. I have talked to several parents who find their kids are trading masks at school. If anything, this is likely increasing the spread of germs more so than if the kids were just washing their hands regularly,” Chris Faller noted.
However, with concerns about rising COVID-19 cases in the local area and across the nation, there are also a number of parents who are sympathetic to the issue.
“It’s not the kids that care. It’s the parents. The delta variant is hitting kids harder, just because it hasn’t in our area yet, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Masks are not the cure all but it’s the best they have right now,” Erica Cornell noted.
“I think some of y’all should walk thru a hospital parking lot and tell the parents of the dying kids how your kids have the right to not wear a mask…tell them how its child abuse,” Jessica Thompson stated.
“If wearing a mask is why it will take to keep my kids in school then I will support it. Their education is of utmost importance. And the theory of masks are harmful is not true. Many Asian countries have been wearing masks a signs of respect for decades,” Noel Bartlett added.
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