Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

School mask requirements are coming under fire as parents ramp up pressure on districts

“It’s like the whole pandemic: There’s always two polar opposite opinions on it,” said West Chester Area School District Superintendent Jim Scanlon.

People hold signs in protest Thursday during a rally to ditch school mask mandates at the Statehouse in Trenton.
People hold signs in protest Thursday during a rally to ditch school mask mandates at the Statehouse in Trenton.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

One woman said her daughter, a senior, stopped going to school in person after she was reprimanded for not wearing her mask during a snack break — and begged for students to be able to “take selfies and make stupid TikToks” without having to cover their faces.

Another, who said her friend lost her father to COVID-19 after catching it from his granddaughter, said she sent her child to school on the assurance that students would be masked — pleading for the requirement to remain in place for the rest of the school year.

After impassioned, at times heated, comments from community members, the Central Bucks School Board voted 4-3 Wednesday night to drop masking requirements for the last five days of the school year. The move by Pennsylvania’s third-largest district was endorsed by the county’s health director, who said that with low case rates and growing levels of immunity to the virus, there was no longer a basis to require masks.

But the issue has yet to be settled. Central Bucks appears to be among a handful of districts that have ignored what Pennsylvania health officials say is a continuing mandate for schools to enforce masking. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also still recommends masks in schools — noting younger children are unable to be vaccinated, and many others are not vaccinated fully.

The CDC is looking at the evidence for continued school masking “in the context of so many people getting vaccinated, in the context of disease rates coming down in certain communities” and will be coming out with updated guidance before fall, Director Rochelle Walensky said on Good Morning America on Thursday.

Parents opposed to masking have been ramping up the pressure on school districts that are also hearing from parents who want to keep some level of masking requirements.

More than 500 people signed a petition in Central Bucks saying that “masks harm children’s health” and cause a “human rights violation” by enabling social distancing — language being circulated in other Pennsylvania districts. More than 800 signed an opposing petition against “extremist viewpoints,” citing American Academy of Pediatrics guidance recommending masks for children 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated.

» READ MORE: The pandemic and bitter partisanship polarized 2020. Now it’s seeping into school board races.

Many districts have been awaiting new state and federal guidance before wading into the debate.

“It’s like the whole pandemic: There’s always two polar opposite opinions on it,” said West Chester Area School District Superintendent Jim Scanlon. His district has dropped outdoor masking but is waiting to change its indoor policies until Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration lifts the state’s order — set to expire June 28, or when it projects 70% of Pennsylvania adults will be fully vaccinated.

Of complaints about masking students, “it isn’t so much the kids,” Scanlon said. “It’s the parents.”

In New Jersey, about 300 people rallied Thursday at the Statehouse, waving American flags and chanting “USA!” from bullhorns as they demanded that Gov. Phil Murphy lift a statewide mandate on school masks for the coming year.

“They need to unmask our children,” said Chelsy Robbins, 38, a mother of two from Pilesgrove in Salem County. “It’s unnecessary.”

Third grader Ashley Pohubka, 8, of Tabernacle, held up a sign that read, “My face my choice.” She said school is no longer fun because she must wear a mask.

Murphy this week broached the possibility of lifting the mandate this fall, though he has said he thinks masks will still be required in school.

“I’ll put on my epidemiological hat and say three months from now might as well be five lifetimes in a pandemic,” Murphy, who has said schools must resume in-person instruction this fall, said during a news conference in North Jersey. “Our minds are open.”

The state’s teachers’ union has advocated that anyone who is unvaccinated should wear masks. “We should not take any risks or shortcuts as we work to emerge from this pandemic,” said New Jersey Education Association spokesperson Steve Baker.

Some health officials say masking children is no longer necessary. “The epidemiology right now does not meet the requirements for a full mask mandate … certainly here in Bucks County,” the county’s health director, David Damsker, told the Central Bucks board Wednesday.

Out of 105,000 students and staff, the county has averaged three cases a day in schools over the last seven days, Damsker said. “My overall concern is: Do we require a mask mandate for 105,000 people for three cases a day?” While children under 12 aren’t yet eligible for vaccination, Damsker said there was “a very low risk of any infection” in that age group. He also said children with special needs or medical conditions would not necessarily “get really sick” if they contracted COVID.

» READ MORE: From COVID-19 data to in-person school, Bucks County’s Health Department goes its own way

“The cost of risk is never zero,” he said. “Those children, unfortunately … they’re going to be at risk for getting whatever respiratory disease is circulating in those schools for years to come.”

David Rubin, director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab, a research group that has been advising districts, said schools were in an “in-between time,” with federal officials lifting masking recommendations for fully vaccinated people, but not yet in school settings.

Once Pennsylvania lifts its mask mandate, many schools will “probably see that as an opportunity,” Rubin said.

The data are “pretty unequivocal on the value of masking,” he said, given that case rates are low and adults have had the opportunity to be vaccinated. But, he added, “it becomes increasingly untenable to continue to mask children, who aren’t at the same risk for severe disease. … The larger question for me is what happens in the fall” if cases rise.

Maggi Barton, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, declined to comment on what its guidance would look like for the coming year. Schools still have to abide by the mask order, she said. (A lawyer for Central Bucks on Wednesday noted the county had its own health director, and the question of whether the state had authority hadn’t been tested.)

Jenn Solderitsch’s daughter will enter fourth grade in the Lower Merion School District this fall; she hopes the district will continue to require masks for children under 12 until they can be vaccinated.

“I know it would be a hard sell after a summer where everything around us is opening up, but an elementary classroom is such a high concentration of non-vaccinated people indoors together all day,” Solderitsch said, adding that COVID exposure in an unmasked classroom would be “a complete mess.” (Lower Merion spokesperson Amy Buckman said the district had heard from parents “on both sides of the mask issue” and would be consulting with the PolicyLab and local and state officials in crafting summer and fall plans.)

Yonaton Yares, 33, a Cherry Hill father of five, said his children would be masked until they were vaccinated.

“I don’t know how masking became so political,” he said. “I don’t think being cautious should be a bad thing.”

In Central Bucks, people expressed a mix of frustration, anger, and fear as they debated the use of masks. “Have some guts and do the right thing now,” Lise Dietz, whose children graduated from the district, told the board. “The masks were never needed. We all know that.”

Parent Donna Shannen, who argued in favor of ending the mandate, said students and others could still wear masks if they chose. “The woman next to me has a mask on and is breathing heavily. I can sense her fear,” she said. “But she’s still sitting next to me.”

Others pointed to that divide as a symptom of a larger problem. Susan Lipson, a mother and family physician, said she was “loudly ridiculed” for walking into the meeting with a mask.

“We are introducing this contention into the school for seven days,” she said. “The kids are going to be against each other just like the adults are against each other.”