When is a mandate not a mandate? The Delaware Valley School District is about to find out.
A special school board meeting was called for Tuesday evening to decide on how to comply, or not, with the governor’s recent order that all people inside Pennsylvania school buildings wear masks to protect against the highly contagious Delta variant. The mask debate has divided the community, with recent school board meetings dissolving into acrimony.
Board president Jack Fisher read the motion, which started off by saying that 7.99 percent of DV students have asthma and 5.71 percent have attention deficit disorder. Since the state health department allows for eight exceptions, he said, “the Delaware Valley School Board directs the administration to accept as reasonable accommodation a signed written parent/guardian request for a medical condition exemption, on a form provided by the district. No further documentation shall be required.”
He then called for a vote. Rosemary Walsh voted no, and the rest of the board — including Dawn Bukaj, Felicia Sheehan, Pat Lutfy, and vice president Jessica Decker — voted yes. Corey Homer did not arrive until after the vote. Brian Carso, who had unsuccessfully proposed a temporary mask mandate before the governor’s order, was absent because he teaches a class on Tuesday nights.
Fisher said after Homer’s arrival that they could not add his vote.
Walsh said she opposed the resolution because of the high proportion of DV students, 30 percent, who needed to be quarantined last year. She acknowledged that masks are uncomfortable but still necessary. Those unable to tolerate a mask could wear a face shield, she said.
Sheehan asked about the number of exemptions in each building. The superintendent, Dr. John Bell, said between 10 to 15 percent were exempted, depending on the building.
Bukaj said about 20 students have withdrawn from school. She said people believed the kids stayed home to avoid getting Covid, but she thought the mask mandate was the reason behind it. To cheers and applause, she said a student without a clear risk of disease has no reason for the student to stay home. She cited a June report from the American Medical Association showing that masks cause excessive carbon dioxide in children’s blood.
Peg Shaffer, a senior member of the administration, and Karla Trost, president of the Delaware Valley Teachers Association, said the board showed disregard for the seriousness of the disease and undermined efforts by the departments of health and education to protect schools.
Lutfy said the district is following the department of health’s mandate.
Bell said the mandate is poorly written and open to interpretation. It is neither right nor wrong, he said.
Covid cases at DV are going up exponentially. As of Friday, Sept. 27, there were 63 Covid cases in DV schools. That’s at 38 percent increase from the previous Friday, when there were 39 cases.
People lined up to speak to the board.
One woman said her 13-year-old daughter wore no mask and was quarantined for seven days because he was exposed on Friday. Now he’s home all day doing nothing. She wanted to know what the district is doing for quarantined kids. She said if the board doesn’t step up and provide teachers while the kids are quarantined, she said the board will hear from her lawyer. Another person said the board was derelict in its duty because they are not giving kids learning options.
A mother of three boys said Zoom meetings must be made available for quarantined kids.
One man said face masks work. No one has died from wearing a face mask, he said, while children are dying are Covid. He asked how many people die because of the refusal to wear masks. He kept talking beyond his allotted time, and only stopped when a police officer walked up to remove him.
People started getting loud. Fisher said he would adjourn if they didn’t settle down.
John Johnson, the father of children in the district and a candidate for school board, said the board was defying the state mandate under the guise of prioritizing parental choice. “Our district has retained three attorneys who have unanimously advised the board to require medical documentation when granting a mask exemption,” he said. “A vote to grant exemptions based on parental requests would effectively undermine the mandate and will exacerbate this public health crisis.”
He said children with documented disabilities are required to go through a rigorous review and approval process, with school staff and students’ doctors, for a 504 plan (the formal plans schools develop to give students with disabilities the support they need). “Granting fraudulent accommodations for students is unethical,” he said.
One man said his brother has autism and believes his brother is drowning because he is wearing a mask.
One woman, whose son is in the tenth grade, said she wants to keep people safe, so she wants them to do the right thing, she said.
A man talked about his daughter in kindergarten. Those five and under shouldn’t wear masks, he said, and neither the board nor his doctor knows his daughter as well as he does.
The discussion ranged further afield, with commentary doubting the accuracy of Covid tests, and warnings about ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug, which is the latest supposed cure hyped on social media.
A student stood up to say that wearing face masks is for the greater good of the community. She said it’s possible to socialize with a mask on. She feels obligated to wear a mask so that she doesn’t infect her 82-year-old grandmother at home.
If wearing a mask can save one person’s life, she said, it’s worth it.