DV board, administration spar over masks

By CHARLES PETERSHEIM
Posted 10/5/21

MILFORD, PA — After 16 months of walking in lockstep, deftly navigating Delaware Valley School District’s pandemic path to offer in-person learning for the 2020-21 school year when many …

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DV board, administration spar over masks

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MILFORD, PA — After 16 months of walking in lockstep, deftly navigating Delaware Valley School District’s pandemic path to offer in-person learning for the 2020-21 school year when many districts had moved online, the Delaware Valley School Board and school administration sharply split on a new, less restrictive mask exemption resolution crafted and proposed by school board president Jack Fisher.

At a special meeting on September 28 called by Fisher, DVSD’s Board of Education voted 5-1 in favor of defying the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s (DOH) order requiring face coverings in all school entities. The new DVSD resolution allows parents to exempt their students from wearing a face covering at school by submitting a health exemption form that does not require the signature of a health professional. Two school board members did not vote, and one had unexpectedly resigned on September 9.

“At the DVSD we always have, and always will, trust our parents to do the right thing,” Fisher wrote in an email.

Countering that opinion, “We find this motion to be irresponsible, and cavalier,” said Dr. Margaret Shaffer, assistant superintendent. “Our insurance provider and three different law firms have advised us to follow the mandate as intended.”

Fisher responded by stating that “the DVSD has not received any specific letters from any of the three law firms we engage with regarding our handling of the DOH edict. The DVSD insurance policies remain in full effect also.” He indicated that he did not seek legal or faculty input for his motion.

The state education secretary warned of consequences that could include “fines, civil lawsuits, and cancelled liability policies.” No such penalties have been reported to date.

Pennsylvania schools have struggled to keep up with changing state guidance, which started the year as mask-optional. Within days of the start of the school year, the state changed its guidance to require masks. A public uproar ensued, fueled by social media, resulting in—at least in DVSD’s case—a novel and possibly risky interpretation of the state mandate.

At the conclusion of the special meeting, a lengthy public comment period ensued. The public comment was mostly in favor of the resolution.

Since the 2021-22 school year began in late August, DVSD has reported 80 cases of COVID-19, with more than 337 associated quarantines, compared with 388 for the 2020-21 school term. With a school district population of 4,300, the more than 400 individuals affected so far this year reflect nearly 10% of the DVSD education community. As there is currently no online school option offered, quarantined students have no access to school instruction.

Last year, the district had rolling closures at all locations due to low state thresholds of transmission levels, affecting thousands of students. As of October 1, no school locations have been temporarily closed this year.

Fisher said his resolution was crafted while watching a Yankees baseball game and ruminating over “baseball’s use of managing risk through statistical means.” Multiple newspaper articles confirm that several other districts are attempting the same approach, using similar language. The Associated Press performed an informal survey of 50 Pennsylvania schools and found that about one in five are using this exemption to expand the ability of parents to send their children to school without a face covering.

The new resolution refers to the eight exceptions listed in the order issued by the state, specifically targeting Exception B, which states “If 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 approved resolution allows a parent to diagnose a possible or existing medical or mental health condition and fill out and sign a form that exempts their child from wearing a mask. No health professional is required to approve the order. No process to challenge said exemption is provided to the school administration.

In response to other schools’ reported exploitation of this perceived loophole, the Pennsylvania Department of Education said in a statement that “any school entity simply permitting a parent’s sign-off without evidence that the student has a medical or mental health condition or disability that precludes the wearing of a face covering is not in compliance with the order.”  No penalties or funding withholdings were described.

A mostly mask-less crowd exceeding 100 people clapped and jeered their respective approvals and disapprovals but remained mostly civil and respectful of the proceedings.

DVSD has a strict mask policy posted on all entrance doors and all entrances were manned by armed DVSD school police, who did little to enforce the district policy.  DVHS Chief of Police Mark Moglia did not respond to an email asking for comment. Fisher explained that he took ”full responsibility” for the lack of enforcement of the district’s masking policy. Asked why he wore a mask at the meeting, he stated that he did so “out of solidarity with our students.”

School superintendent Dr. John Bell said in an email response to a reporter’s question, “Since the board isn’t following our administrative recommendations regarding masking, I am deferring to Board President Jack Fisher for any comments about the meetings. I’ll still be the go-to person for district affairs but not for Board meetings.”   

Dr. Bell was the day-to-day voice of all things related to COVID-19 during the 2020-21 school year, with his increasingly familiar voice delivering recorded calls to the DVSD education community, reporting daily on caseloads, school closures, and other, mostly bad, news. His steady but weary voice as the year rolled on reflected the weary community. Currently, administration calls are auto-generated with anonymous generic voice-overs delivering COVID-19 information, removing the more personal and empathetic approach used last year, possibly reflecting reduced enthusiasm for direct accountability as the school district veers into uncharted territory.

A survey of students the day after the meeting did not reveal any new or increased levels of easily observable mask-less students. As one middle school student reported to his parent when queried, “It’s about the same.” The student then went to his bedroom and shut his door for the night, oblivious to the adult mask wars.

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