The Central Bucks School Board on Wednesday voted down, on a 5-4 vote, a mask requirement and tighter COVID-19 mitigation measures.
Debate on the issue came two days after the county gave new guidance in response to a rebuke by state health officials, prompting the district to quickly reshape its plan. Some board members deemed the new plan too restrictive, or objected that masking wasn’t tied to prevalence of the virus in the community and other metrics.
The board said it would revisit the issue next Tuesday, the second day of school.
The district — the third-largest in Pennsylvania — had revised its plan to align with the county’s new recommendations, including a requirement that students who test positive for COVID-19 isolate for 10 days. It specifies that the district will notify parents and the Health Department of close contacts, and that rapid testing will be available in school for students whose parents have given permission.
Before the vote, board members debated whether to approve the plan Wednesday night after hearing comment from deeply divided community members, some of whom described masking as “child abuse,” or noted the low risks of COVID-19 to children.
Parents in favor of a masking requirement cited risks to children with health conditions and immunocompromised community members, and urged the board to follow the CDC, state, and now county health officials — who before the state’s intervention had already revised their mask-optional guidance to recommend universal masking at the urging of local hospitals.
But the county had continued to advise other measures that were less restrictive than state and federal authorities — allowing children with COVID to return to classrooms after being fever-free for 24 hours, for instance. The county also hadn’t described plans to contact-trace in schools.
In a letter to Bucks County commissioners Monday, acting Health Secretary Alison Beam called the county’s directives “alarming” and warned the approach could hinder response to outbreaks and threaten in-person education this fall.
With schools across the region on the verge of reopening, masking and other pandemic policies have taken on added urgency. On Wednesday, Gov. Tom Wolf pressed the Republican-led legislature to pass a statewide school mask mandate, saying “it is clear action is needed” after just 59 out of 474 districts that submitted health and safety plans to the state in late July included mask requirements. (Numerous area districts have since adjusted their plans.)
While the Central Bucks school board members debated the new plan late Wednesday, acting Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh said administrators wanted to avoid closing schools.
“I’m terrified of the prospect of having to pivot into virtual,” Lucabaugh said of the district’s response to the new county guidance. “Which is one of the things that drove us.”
After the vote against the plan, member John Gamble explained his no vote. “We need to find something to heal this community and find a middle ground,” Gamble said.
Community members lined up outside the district administrative building long before Wednesday’s meeting, some holding umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun. The first were allowed to speak — 15 in favor of universal masking, and 15 against.
Inside the board room, different sides of the split crowd applauded each speaker.
“I implore you not to be complicit in child abuse,” the first speaker, parent Karen Smith, said to loud applause, after equating masking to “knowingly or recklessly interfering with the breathing of a child.”
Other parents vowed to send their children to school without masks. “Follow the law. If you don’t, I will see you and the CDC in court,” said Shannon Harris, of Buckingham.
Those in favor of universal masking urged the board to follow the advice of experts.
“I value the consensus of experts over laypeople,” said Charlie Casey, a parent of three, noting the support from federal, state, and county officials for masking. “Any quack can post on YouTube.”
As another man called for masking while noting the spread of the virus among unvaccinated people — “Delta chose us. We didn’t choose delta,” he said — some in the back of the room reacted forcefully.
“You’ve got the kids in a panic,” a man snapped.
Board president Dana Hunter periodically banged her gavel, trying to quell the crowd. “I get the emotion of all of this, but please let’s let everybody speak,” she said.