Updated: Sep 10, 2021
mask use results in
By Garret Roberts and Jamie Wiggan
A heated Aug. 19 school board meeting where Montour directors approved district-wide mask mandates ended with threats issued against school officials and a public participant escorted away by security.
Public comment ranged from requests to make masking optional to suggestions that mask mandates equate to child abuse and allegations the district was buying into government-led conspiracies.
“You do not have the right to rip personal responsibility and the responsibility of these other parents away,” said one parent, Jennifer Pecori. “...There is no federal, no state, no county mandate to wear masks, and somehow here at Montour, we’re mandating it.”
Fueling the frustration, just one month prior, the same board approved a health and safety plan for the upcoming school year that left mask-use optional among the student body. But growing concerns posed by the coronavirus delta variant have led Montour, and other area districts, to revert to universal mask requirements.
Officials at Carlynton, Cornell and Sto-Rox districts have taken the same approach during recent weeks.
The revised policy approved by Montour directors includes a three-tiered plan dependent on local virus caseloads.
With Allegheny County rates currently deemed “high” by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the district is entering the school year at level three, requiring masks for students from kindergarten to 12th grade. Should cases drop, level one recommends masking for students under grade 6, who currently do not have access to vaccines, while level two requires masks for this group and recommends their use for older students. The board approved the policy 7-2, with directors Thomas Barclay and Darell Young voting against.
The policy will be re-evaluated on the first of every month, where mitigation levels will be based on the local trends for COVID-19 spread in the area, directors said.
School officials supported their actions by saying they were doing what was necessary to keep children in school.
“We all want to get back to quote-unquote normal, we all want to see kids’ faces,” said Superintendent Christopher Stone. “We’re working towards getting through this hump.”
The Allegheny County Department of Health requires students to quarantine if exposed to the virus or diagnosed with COVID-19, but the guidelines for which students are considered “exposed” has changed. Now, students within the contact tracing range that are wearing masks and three to six feet away no longer are required to quarantine.
Students who received their vaccinations will also not be required to quarantine under the new rules from the ACDH. Students not masked and unvaccinated are required to quarantine under the same rules.
Many parents said they were upset with the suddenness of the policy change. They claimed the process lacked transparency and said the board should not bend to societal pressure for masking practices. Some parents mentioned not receiving the emails about the change as of the beginning of the meeting.
Members of the Republican Committee of Robinson Township appeared at the meeting to condemn mask-wearing. When one member of the group was asked to stop speaking, as his time was up, security had to escort the individual out of the auditorium. Another speaker took over his prepared speech and finished it on his allotted time.
After hearing from parents, Stone presented the school board’s decision and explained the details about the addendum. While he agreed with the audience's assertion that data showed children were less likely to die from contracting COVID-19, he countered that it also made it easier to spread to families at home.
According to an end-of-the-year survey, 99% of parents wanted to ensure students attended in-person classes five days a week. In order to ensure they can operate this way, Stone made it clear that the district would need to keep the spread of the virus to a minimum and quarantine as few students as possible.
Stone was interrupted various times throughout the presentation by parents, prompting the school board to once again warn the audience that further interruptions could lead to their removal from the auditorium. Some members of the community who made direct threats to the board, as well as other staff in the room, were asked to leave as the board entered an executive session before reconvening for the vote.
While none of the audience spoke up to support the decision for masking that night, board member Thomas Barclay expressed that the board was contacted by parents before the meeting in support of masking.
Some of these parents also threatened taking legal actions against the school if their children would contract COVID-19 while on campus.
Moves to revert back to masking at Carlynton also brought a line of speakers to the district’s Aug. 19 meeting.
Unlike Montour, the speakers – mostly parents, but also three students – were roughly split on the issue, with slightly more speaking out against the mandate.
Board President Jim Schriver defended the board’s decision to mandate masking, saying directors had reviewed several health studies supporting mask use and also cited guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as well as state and local recommendations.
“There have been board members who work in the healthcare industry who provided studies that we could review,” Scrivener said. “...The collective input has allowed us to make a decision on this topic...This was a challenging one.”
The board voted 6-1 in favor of the revised policy, with George Honchar providing the lone dissenting voice and Jude Frank and Marissa Mendoza absent.
Like Montour, Carlynton put forward a tiered-response plan depending on local case numbers.
Members of the public weighing in on both sides debated the science behind mask-use and its impact on child learning and well-being.
While at times impassioned, speakers remained calm while delivering their comments, and several thanked directors for the opportunity to engage despite disagreeing on the substance of the issue.
Many who opposed mandatory masking suggested making it optional would be an acceptable compromise.
“The mandatory masking is pushing it too far,” said Lisa Smith, a parent. “If you’re sick, stay at home; if you’re worried, you wear a mask; if you’re petrified, do cyber school.”
Smith and others argued masking is not just an irritant to students but also impacts them socially and academically.
Those in support framed it as a collective, rather than individual, issue.
“Masking is a way of encouraging selfless acts of kindness,” said Becky Heffner, another parent. “We have a choice to teach our children how to deal with this difficult thing.”
Several also emphasized a priority for in-school learning, for which they see mask-wearing as a necessary sacrifice.
“If it gets us in school and keeps us in school, I’m for it and so are my children,” said Lucy Valcheff.
The Cornell School District marked its full reopening with a mask mandate that went into effect on Aug. 26.
Superintendent Aaron Thomas said he met with the Allegheny County Health Department, other superintendents and medical professionals, and said he also worked to keep the school community apprised.
“All summer long we communicated this was ever-changing,” he said. “The community has been supportive of the decision.”
Thomas said district policy provides for brief mask breaks throughout the day, but only while students are seated at their desks. Cornell staff members are also required to wear masks in the classroom.
Thomas said he hopes the district can move to a parental choice option in the near future.
After approving a reopening plan that initially left mask-use unconfirmed, the Sto-Rox School Board voted Aug. 12 to require mask use throughout all three district buildings.
No parents came to voice either support or concerns during the meeting.
Students returned for school with the mandate in place Aug. 19.
- Carrie Moniot contributed to this report