WESTOVER — A group of approximately 20 parents concerned about their children being required to wear masks at school attended Tuesday’s Harmony Area School Board meeting.
Parents were concerned over the state Department of Health’s recent mask mandate that went into effect for schools and other childcare and learning institutions on Tuesday, Sept. 7.
DOH’s order, recently announced by state Gov. Tom Wolf, requires universal masking for schools. The directive requires anyone entering one of those facilities including students, wear a mask regardless of whether they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. School districts were charged with enforcing the rules although the mandate is very vague about how this is to be done.
The group’s spokesperson, Brooke Barrett, addressed the board. She said as the mother of two district students she is concerned the requirement to wear masks is just a beginning of directives.
“When I (previously) learned the district was making wearing masks optional I was pumped, but now it seems as though the state is trying to take the school district’s power away. It is a parent’s right to make health-based decisions. If it is masks now, next there will be a vaccine mandate. Where does it stop?”
Superintendent Ken Jubas told the board and the audience he had an opportunity to speak with several parents yesterday about the mandate and the district’s collaboration with its solicitor to create a waiver, which is available on the district’s website and in the high school and elementary schools offices. The document can be signed by parents who don’t want their children to wear masks at school.
The waiver states a parent is aware not wearing a mask could create an increase risk of exposure to COVID-19 for their child and that if a student does contract it, the district and its employees are held harmless from liability.
“There have been a lot of conversations with Dave Consiglio (district solicitor) this week. If a student has a medical condition that falls within Section 3 of the mandate, the district is fine with it. After lengthy conversation, the district is comfortable with what we are doing,” Jubas said.
Section 3 provides exceptions to the mask-wearing mandate. The order states all alternatives to a face covering, including the use of a face shield, should be exhausted before an individual is exempted from the requirements.
The exemptions include if wearing a face mask would either cause a medical condition or exacerbate an existing one, including respiratory issues that impede breathing, a mental health condition or a disability.
A member of the audience asked whether the district would require proof of a student’s medical condition? Jubas said no.
“It’s an existing medical condition or a condition that a parent believes a child has.” Jubas said the district believes parents should be able to make determination of whether those exceptions are met. “You’re the parent. We trust you know your student,” he said.
Jubas told The Progress after the meeting that Harmony developed its waiver using samples created by other school districts and in collaboration with the district’s solicitor.
“We developed a form that fit our district,” he explained.
He said unless parents sign a waiver exempting their child from wearing a mask under Section 3 of the order, the district is adhering to the mandate, and students who do not have a signed waiver in the office will be asked to wear masks.
“If parents do sign a waiver their children do not have to wear a mask while they are in the school building. “If a waiver is on file, the students are exempted from wearing masks indoors,” he said
Jubas said the district will still be continuing with precautions to stop the spread of the virus including practicing social distancing, sanitizing and using contact tracing.
Masks will still be required to be worn by all riding school buses because a federal mandate requires masks to be worn on public transportation and buses are considered public transportation, Jubas added.
The waiver is not part of the district’s health and safety plan that was adopted earlier this year by the board.
Jubas said, “We wanted to get the form out to the parents as soon as possible since the mandate came upon us before our board met. In consultation with the district’s solicitor, and at a previous board meeting, as the superintendent, I was given approval to make changes as needed to eliminate unnecessary and difficult emergency board meetings. I met with a parent spokesperson prior to the meeting and explained what the board’s position and intentions were, and they felt accomplished, as indicated by the group response last night. I think they were satisfied.”
He said he is unsure whether the waiver will be a lasting resolution.
“This may be a short-term solution as certain groups or agencies will file an injunction on the mandate. Rules for mask wearing are constantly changing and there is a great deal of subjectivity in the mandate’s interpretation. We want our students in school every day, in-person — that’s the mission of the district.”