The CDC and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have loosened some COVID-19 guidelines for schools in an effort to keep more students in classrooms while cases are surging.
But those more flexible recommendations have come with an expectation: Everyone in schools still has to mask.
Yet the districts that dropped their mask mandates after the statewide requirement was struck down in December aren’t necessarily reinstating them.
A number of Bucks County schools have stuck with mask-optional policies at the same time they’ve adopted more relaxed guidance, including reducing how long students who test positive for the virus have to isolate at home.
“We cannot cherry-pick the guidelines,” said Council Rock board member Yota Palli, who argued during a meeting last week that if the board were to adopt the reduced five-day isolation period, “we should also follow the next guideline” and require five days of masking upon a COVID-positive student’s return to school.
The board did not, and passed an updated health and safety plan, 5-4.
“I just feel like politics are getting in the way of making the best decisions for kids,” said Elizabeth Austin, a Council Rock parent whose fourth-grade daughter has leukemia and went to the emergency room last week after she was exposed to COVID-19 in school.
Another Council Rock parent, Ellen Rawicz, called the district’s approach — which also included dropping contact tracing — “irresponsible.“
“I think they’re putting everybody in the district and everybody’s lives at risk,” she said.
The changes come as virus cases and positivity rates have skyrocketed — though driven by a variant that health experts say is largely producing mild illness and poses relatively low risks to vaccinated people. Still, some hospitals have been filling up, and some area schools have been crippled by staffing shortages that have forced moves to virtual instruction.
In the Centennial School District — another Bucks County district with optional masking — teachers’ union leaders wrote in a letter that with staff shortages and unsustainable workloads, “we are within or painstakingly close to the threshold for moving to a virtual, or at the least modified, instructional model for several if not all of our schools,” according to the Bucks County Courier Times, which reported that the note was sent to many in the district Sunday.
The letter, which called for mandatory masking, said that “school district staff are dying. We repeat: School district staff are dying.” Union leaders did not respond to requests for comment this week.
In recommending that schools adopt the CDC’s shorter time frame for isolation, the CHOP PolicyLab — which many area schools consult for their own guidelines — said students and staff should be allowed to return to school five days after COVID-19 symptoms begin, “provided they are now asymptomatic or have resolving symptoms and will continue to wear a mask at all times for five additional days.”
The research group also called for continued indoor masking requirements “regardless of vaccination status” and said students and staff exposed to someone with COVID-19 outside of their household could remain in school, if they were asymptomatic and wore a mask “at all times” for seven days after the exposure.
While many districts in the Philadelphia area have required masks throughout the school year, others dropped the rule after the state Supreme Court struck down the mandate from Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration last month.
Some districts that went mask-optional have reinstated requirements temporarily. The Souderton Area School District in Montgomery County told parents it would require masking for two weeks beginning Jan. 3 as a result of changes in county guidance and “to help reduce unnecessary student quarantines.”
In Delaware County, Marple Newtown, which was virtual last week due to staffing shortages, began requiring masking this Monday in an effort to minimize quarantines.
“This change to universal masking is intended to be temporary as the medical experts consulting with our administration are of the belief that this current situation will significantly subside in the coming weeks,” Superintendent Tina Kane wrote in a message to the school community, saying the district would reevaluate after Jan. 28.
The Neshaminy School District, which has been mask-optional, told parents last Friday that students who were positive for COVID-19 “may return to school with a mask for five calendar days” after isolating at home for five days.
Superintendent Rob McGee also shared “ballparked” estimates for how many students were masked in district schools on Wednesday last week: from a high of 85% at two of the district middle schools to a low of 50% at the high school.
At Pennridge High School, junior Robin Reid said signs posted in hallways broadcast that masking is optional, and very few students wear them — although in a survey taken in one of her AP classes, 80% of classmates said they thought masking should be required.
On Monday night, the district announced that students and staff who are positive for COVID-19 can return to school after just three days of isolation if symptoms are resolving and they mask through day seven, removing masks for “short periods of time to drink or eat.” Those who have a household member who is positive for the virus but isolating are allowed to attend school without having to mask.
The district said the changes were supported by the Bucks County Health Department.
Department spokesperson James O’Malley said Wednesday that “we’re recommending that schools still follow CDC guidance” and require five days of isolation.
“Honestly, I’m scared to go into school,” Reid said. “Who knows who’s going to be sitting next to me without a mask?”
During a school board meeting in Council Rock last Thursday night — where a high school student ended his comments opposing universal masking by commenting “Let’s go, Brandon,” an insulting slogan used by opponents of President Joe Biden — the school board went line by line through its health and safety plan but dismissed calls to add mask requirements.
“We swore an oath to protect, obey, and defend the constitution of Pennsylvania and the United States. We did not swear an oath to protect, obey, and defend the CDC,” said board member Michael Roosevelt, rejecting the prospect of a districtwide mandate.
Days before the meeting, the district’s superintendent, Robert Fraser, had told the community that given “the accelerated wave of cases,” he was concerned about keeping schools open and recommended that everyone mask: “My bottom-line preference is to have students wearing a mask in school as opposed to being at home learning virtually.” The board announced during the meeting that Fraser had taken a leave of absence.
Even while masking was required by the state, Council Rock was among the districts that granted significant numbers of medical-exemption requests from the mandate.
Because of the district’s exemption policy — which didn’t require medical documentation — Austin, the parent whose daughter has leukemia, said her daughter’s doctor advised that she couldn’t safely attend school.
But because she wanted to be in person, she had started transitioning back to the classroom before winter break.
Then on the first day back from break, she was exposed, which Austin learned from the district two days later. As a result of getting COVID, she had to stop chemotherapy.
“Adults’ political and private issues are affecting my 10-year-old’s health. And she really doesn’t care who’s president,” she said. “She just wants to go back to school safely.”