Several parents spoke out against New Jersey’s school mask mandate at last Thursday’s Vernon Township School District meeting. But it was only an opportunity to express frustration.
The board declined to object to Gov. Phil Murphy’s recent executive order that masks be worn indoors in schools statewide, public and private, as the academic year begins.
Natalie Buccieri, a former board member, expressed her dismay that the board did not oppose the mandate.
“I’m very disappointed that not one board member or administrator will stand up,” she said.
She said she hoped students won’t be wearing masks at lunch or while outside, and that teachers weren’t deciding the physical exertion threshold for mask wearing among students while exercising or playing sports.
Several residents asked about a presentation earlier in the meeting in which teachers and students were shown indoors without masks. They wanted to know what had changed.
Superintendent Karen D’Avino said the photos in the presentation were taken before Murphy issued his executive order on Aug. 19. At that time, she said, Sussex County was designated green in coronavirus activity, which indicates low risk of spread. Sussex County, and most of New Jersey, are now designated yellow, which indicates moderate risk. A portion of the state closest to New York City is designated orange, indicating a high risk of spread.
D’Avino said another executive order by the governor issued that week requires all eligible school employees to be vaccinated or produce a negative test once or twice per week.
“We are blessed you send your children to us every day,” D’Avino said. “Without your children here, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do, which I think our teachers educate our children in a wonderful way.”
Katie Craig said she moved into the township seven months ago. She expressed concern about her son – about to enter kindergarten and diagnosed with ADHD – who has to be reminded to wear his mask properly.
She said she was worried about the masks’ affect on children, psychologically and emotionally.
“I don’t feel masks are efficient enough,” said Craig. “I just want our children to breathe properly and be happy.”
She said temperature checks and regular handwashing are sufficient to prevent Covid spread in schools.
Assistant Superintendent Charles McKay was sympathetic. “Masks are no one’s idea of a good time,” he said. “Our teachers are going to work especially hard with the masks, and our students will as well. But the idea that we can simply change the edict is not possible.”
Board president Justin Annunziata banged the gavel on several occasions in response to chatter and retorts from the audience as members of the public addressed the board. He asked the audience to give everyone a chance to speak.
He said it was the first time in two years he’s has had to pick up the gavel.
“You’re always going to be welcome to come here,” Annunziata said. “We have to maintain a certain level of decency and respect. I’ve said it before. We expect our students in a classroom to not interrupt, to not shout, to not make comments about what the other person is saying because we don’t like what they’re saying. If we’re going to expect that of our students, if you’re going to come before our board in a public meeting and do that, we’re going to expect it of you too. That’s how we run our meetings in Vernon. We’re going to continue to listen and continue to respect each other.”
“I don’t feel masks are efficient enough,” I just want our children to breathe properly and be happy.” Katie Craig