Parents Fighting Back Against School Mask Mandate

Aly Delp

Aly Delp

Published September 3, 2021 4:55 am
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VENANGO CO., Pa. (EYT) — Parents flooded school district phone lines, inboxes, and social media on Thursday to voice their displeasure following Governor Tom Wolf’s announcement of a new mask mandate for K-12 schools.

(Dr. Brooke Decker, left, of Marshall, Director, Infection Prevention, VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, argues with Dana Gibson, right, of McCandless, about Ms. Gibson’s opposition to a mask mandate for students before the North Allegheny School District school board regarding the district’s mask policy, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021, at at North Allegheny Senior High School in McCandless, Pa. Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP.)

A recent poll on exploreVenango.com has shown that a majority of parents, guardians, and local residents in Venango County and the surrounding areas are against the mandate.

“Parents should absolutely make the choice for their own children,” area resident Jennifer Dalmaso-Kase said.

“This lousy government should not be the ones telling our children what to and not to do, it’s not their job, it’s the parents’ job to make that decision for their kids,” Jim Blaire added.

“If the parents are concerned, their children can wear them. Don’t try forcing my healthy child to wear a germ incubator,” Steph Viele noted.

With so many people opposed to the mandate, it isn’t surprising that some districts have been getting both questions and feedback from area residents.

“I have talked to a few parents on the phone and discussed how the OCASD will address the mask mandate,” Oil City Area Superintendent Lynda Weller told exploreVenango.com.

Weller said she has been taking time to explain the school district’s position and how they will address the mask mandate, including the fact that the district must follow the mandate.

“I also explained that the CDC guidance details the following: ‘In the K-12 indoor classroom setting, the close contact definition excludes students who were within 3 to 6 feet of an infected student if both the infected student and exposed student(s) correctly and consistently wore well-fitting masks the entire time.’ Therefore, wearing masks will significantly limit the number of students who will need to be quarantined due to exposure to COVID at school.”

Other administrators have also received some inquiries from local residents.

“Since the press conference on Tuesday, I have received approximately six inquires from parents, and I know the principals have received some as well,” Bill Vonada Superintendent of Cranberry Area School District said.

“The inquires I have received have all expressed disappointment and frustration with the mask mandate.”

According to Vonada, Cranberry Area School District sent out a notification early Thursday afternoon informing stakeholders of the mask mandate and that the district plans to comply with the mandate beginning on September 7.

Franklin Area Superintendent Mark Loucks reported the majority of feedback they have received is from parents who do not want students to have to wear masks.

“It’s difficult to say, but this is not an individual school decision. It’s out of our control, but we have to enforce it, and I think that’s where a disconnect has occurred. We have great parents here, they just need more information about what’s going on, and I’m trying to provide that.”

Loucks noted he posted a letter with an update on the mandate on the district website on Thursday.

“We’re fortunate. We have support from our parents. They just want to do the best for their child.”

Forest Area School District Superintendent Amanda Hetrick reported that while the issue of masking has become “contentious,” administrators are focused on the importance of keeping students in school in person.

“Now that the Department of Health mandate has been issued, we are appreciative of the fact that our families have been supportive of the school district in understanding that the district must enforce the mandate as ordered,” Hetrick said.

Superintendent David McDeavitt of Allegheny Clarion Valley School District said he hadn’t received any negative feedback on the mask mandate as of Thursday.

“I actually had a few people tell me they hope this helps stop the spread,” McDeavitt noted.

Calls and emails to other area school district administrators were not immediately returned.

A Facebook group titled Unmask Venango County was started on Wednesday for community members to discuss the mandate and related issues, but organizers of the group were unavailable for further comment.

In neighboring Clarion County, parents are banding together in Keystone School District to make a concerted effort against the mandate.

A Facebook group titled My Kid My Choice Keystone School District was started on Wednesday and a meeting of likeminded Keystone School District residents has been planned for 4:00 p.m. on Monday at Peanut Park in Knox.

“We are an organization that believes we as parents know what is best for our children,” organizer Jason Say said.

“We’ve been in this pandemic for two years now and understand the risks. Our motto is simple: ‘Our Kids, Our Choice.'”

Say also noted that the group isn’t intended to be political in nature.

“We don’t care if you are Republican, Democrat, liberal, or conservative. If you believe that the best interest of kids and their health decisions should ultimately be the decision of parents then our group is for you.”

A social media group for parents in the Clarion Area, called My Kid My Choice Clarion Area School District, was also formed on Thursday.

The private group’s information states “This group is for parents, teachers, Clarion County board members, etc for next steps and how we can make an impact responsibly to save our children from this mask mandate.”

Some schools, such as Union School District, are allowing students to be exempted from masking under certain criteria.

Union School District announced in a social media post on Thursday that they have a “Sworn Affidavit for Exception to Covering Requirement” form located on their website under “Covid Related Information” for anyone who feels that their student meets the particular requirements listed for exception as noted in the original order.

These exceptions include cases where wearing a face covering would either cause a medical condition, or exacerbate an existing one, including respiratory issues that impede breathing, a mental health condition, or a disability.

The post indicates students who qualify for the exemption shall receive a district-issued “Accommodation Card” which may be presented if/when addressed for not having a mask, signifies that the student has met the requirement for an exception.

“Please know that our school district continues to respect a parent’s right to make positive choices for their child and our goal is to operate within the confines of the laws and mandates put upon us while also providing as much room for parental choice as possible,” the post states.

The issue of mask mandates may have heated up across Pennsylvania recently, but has also been a major topic of debate across the nation as COVID-19 numbers have taken an upturn due to the Delta variant.

According to information posted on Parents for Mask Choice in Schools and several other related pages and groups, a Nationwide School Walkout protesting mask mandates is being planned for Friday, September 10 at 10:00 a.m.

Republican legislative leaders have also denounced the Wolf administration’s new mandate, saying it should be a matter for local school boards.

Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion/Armstrong/Forest) is one of the leaders who has been vocally in opposition to the order. On Wednesday, Oberlander released a statement calling the mandate “a violation of our freedoms” and a “power grab” by Governor Wolf.

“We need school boards to fight back against this unenforceable mandate. We need parents to stand up for their children and do what is best for their families,” Oberlander said.

Senators Doug Mastriano (R-33) and Judy Ward (R-30) recently introduced Senate Bill 846, which would require school districts to develop and promote a plan for parents or legal guardians to opt-out out their child from wearing a face covering or mask. Under this bill, the plan would also have to state that a child who has been opted-out will not be subject to any harassment or discriminatory treatment.

“The Wolf Administration repeatedly said over the past few months that this would be a local decision. Once most school districts rejected mask mandates (Over 90%), Governor Wolf quickly changed his position when those officials made a decision that he didn’t like,” Mastriano said in a release.

“The Wolf Administration does not have the legal authority to do this. In May, we voted to end the Governor’s Emergency Declaration after the voters of Pennsylvania made their voices loud and clear. I will be supporting a legal challenge to this misguided mandate.”

Mastriano isn’t the only one questioning the legal underpinnings of the mandate.

While voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution limiting the amount of time a governor can issue a disaster declaration to 21 days and approved another change to the Constitution to allow the legislature to extend or end a disaster declaration by a majority vote in May, the governor’s office says the health secretary still has the authority to issue a mask order, and Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam signed the order under her authority provided by the Disease Prevention and Control Law.

However, Eric Winter, Esq. of Prince Law Offices, published a blog post on Wednesday arguing that the order goes beyond the scope of what would be lawful.

According to Winter, the language in the Disease Prevention and Control Law does give the Department of Health the authority to issue “control measures” for viral outbreaks, but language in the law indicates it is intended to be done at a local level.

“The Department of Health only has authorities over schools where there has been an outbreak. Even where there has been an outbreak, that control measure must be limited and for an appropriately short duration. This current order could theoretically last forever and covers tens of thousands of children who have not been exposed to the virus,” Winter argues.

Winter also states that violations of the Virus and Disease Control Law and the Administrative Code of 1929 and the Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955 are only punishable by filing summary citations, with maximum fines between $50 to $300.

“I have tried many of these citations. I am not aware of anyone being found guilty of these citations,” he noted.

Winter suggests that school boards continued to follow the plans they already developed and file for declaratory judgment and/or quarantine relief asking that the order be declared invalid.

“Local school boards need to stand up for their authority. They should be making the decisions as to virus management within their buildings. The local school board knows their staff, they know their resources and they know the local community. They were elected to do their job and should be allowed to do the job they were elected to do.”

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