School mask mandate debated in testy meeting

Vernon. Some parents said masks impede breathing and conceal smiles, and called the governor’s mandate fear mongering. School officials say the mandate includes an exception for students engaged in intense physical activity, as long as they are distanced in a well-ventilated space.

Vernon /
| 01 Oct 2021 | 03:38

One of Sugeny Guzman’s children begged to go back to school this year.

But Guzman said she hesitated because she wasn’t comfortable with the mask mandate imposed by Gov. Phil Murphy’s most recent executive order.

“I know we’re dealing with a pandemic, and people really are getting sick,” Guzman said at the Sept. 23 Vernon school board meeting. But, she said, “I think people should be able to see their teachers and their classmates.”

Guzman spoke at the meeting over Zoom because she didn’t want to wear a mask. She didn’t send her other child to kindergarten because, she said, kindergarteners need to see facial expressions.

She said her daughter was coming home from school with headaches and believes it’s because of mask wearing. “The masks harm the kids more than they do good,” she said.

Guzman asked the school board to help parents speak “on behalf of our kids” and institute an optional mask policy.

For some that wasn’t enough. Another parent accused the school board of fear-mongering and pointed out each school board member – Ray Zimmerman, Charles Cimaglia, and Theresa Scura Coughlan – who are up for re-election in November.

School board president Justin Annunziata asked two members of the audience to leave the meeting, the first for refusing to wear a mask — he said the mask was “inhibitive to his health” — during the public comment session. The audience member interpreted the mask mandate to mean that children could exempt themselves simply by saying the same thing.

Another member of the public took issue with that.

“I cannot make a statement about my own health legally,” said Martin Pirringer. “I need a doctor to do that. It’s not true what the guy said before that you can just say it impedes my health. You need a doctor.”

Another person was asked to leave for speaking out of turn during the open board member forum after the public comment session was closed.

Masks in gym class

Other parents, including Guzman and former school board member Natalie Buccieri, reported that some physical education teachers were enforcing the mask mandate in violation of the executive order, which allows students to shed their masks while exercising.

“If you’re going to follow the executive order, you should follow every part of the executive order if that’s your decision,” Buccieri said.

Buccieri had previously unsuccessfully asked the school board to oppose the mask mandate. She asked if the school had a policy to help teachers avoid awkward situations.

D’Avino said she was hearing about the stories about gym classes for the first time. She recommended that parents call their school’s principal.

She said the executive order is clear about the physical exertion exception. Reading from the order, D’Avino said exceptions to the mask mandate are “when individual is engaged in high-intensity aerobic or anaerobic activity, participating during high-intensity activity during physical education class in a well-ventilated location and are able to maintain six feet.”Barbara Monschauer, a teacher at Rolling Hills school, said the children are happy to be back in school, and that the teachers and staff are doing everything they can to keep students safe.

“We are extremely happy to be back in person,” she said. “They’re doing really well to adapt to things. It’s a time to change and get used to routines again, but they’re doing very well.”

Vicky Smith, an English teacher and president of the Vernon Township Education Association, said while the first three weeks of school have been exhausting, they’ve also been very rewarding.

“It feels good to be back in the classroom and not to be tethered to a computer,” Smith said.

“I know we’re dealing with a pandemic, and people really are getting sick. I think people should be able to see their teachers and their classmates.” Sugeny Guzman