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More Philly-area schools are ending mask mandates, but the question of how and when is dividing communities

The shifting landscape — in absence of any unified standard — has brought new tension over how to move beyond pandemic restrictions that have shaped the last two years.

People held up signs as soon as the School District of Haverford Township school board meeting began at Haverford High School on Thursday.  The board voted to transition to optional masking.
People held up signs as soon as the School District of Haverford Township school board meeting began at Haverford High School on Thursday. The board voted to transition to optional masking.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

As a group of students walked out of Conestoga High School a little more than a week ago in defiance of mask requirements — banging lockers and shouting “Freedom!” along the way — they set off a social media feud that reflected a broader debate.

With omicron retreating, and mandates at the state and city level being rolled back, suburban schools that have maintained universal masking in line with public health recommendations now find themselves asking: When, and how, can they move beyond the restrictions that have shaped the last two years?

But not everyone agrees on the right approach.

While a growing number of health-care professionals have called for school mandates to end, the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics have continued to endorse universal masking in schools given still-high transmission levels. (The CDC said last week it’s considering a change to its mask guidance, though it was unclear how that might apply to schools.)

That contributed to some schools adopting timelines or thresholds for dropping requirements, while others are staying the course, at least for now. And the shifting landscape — in absence of any unified standard — has brought new tension over an issue that has deeply divided some communities.

In Wallingford-Swarthmore, one mother, believing the district has moved to optional masking too quickly, started crying while describing her fear that parental discord would now be reflected by children; others worried about risks to immunocompromised or disabled students, concerns that have spurred lawsuits.

In West Chester and Downingtown, residents are petitioning to remove school board directors for ordering masking, while in Tredyffrin/Easttown — where threats following the Conestoga walkout prompted the high school to close for a day — a father was banned from district property after giving a fiery speech in the boys’ wrestling locker room encouraging defiance of the mask mandate: “They cannot defeat you if you stick together. Do not let them f— with your minds.”

The politicization of the pandemic and rancor stirred by the loudest voices at school board meetings have others worried a reasoned conversation about how to move forward is still out of reach.

“I think there’s become kind of a culture of say nothing, because of what has happened with school boards the past two years,” said Kate Barry, a parent of preschool and elementary-age children in the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District. Barry said her family has taken the pandemic seriously — with vaccinations and boosters and testing — and she supports her district leadership and teachers. But she’s been dismayed watching other venues drop restrictions — restaurants, sports, concert halls — while arguments continue to rage over schools.

“What is it about schools and our kids that are the last battleground in this pandemic,” she asked, “especially when we’ve done everything that’s been asked of us?”

Tredyffrin/Easttown said Friday that its school board would consider a plan Feb. 28 to move to optional masking if county transmission drops to “substantial” levels for two weeks. Other area districts have been taking steps to rescind requirements: The Haverford Township school board voted Thursday to make masking optional as of Feb. 28, a date that aligns with a shift to optional masking in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s suburban schools.

In New Jersey, Cherry Hill is among the districts recommending its school board approve a move to optional masking when the state’s school mask mandate expires March 7.

“We’re running out of time to create some semblance of normalcy for these kids,” said Marc Bertrando, superintendent in the Garnet Valley School District, which is expected to vote Tuesday on dropping its mask requirement. “These are significant things now. We are seeing mental health issues. We are seeing behaviors that are not ordinary in our schools.”

Bertrando cited fast-dropping cases in the district — from 121 the first week of January to 17 last week, or 0.32% of students and staff — and guidance from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab, which has been advising local schools they can move to end mask mandates.

“Requiring or mandating mitigation strategies is about eliminating exposure risk for everyone,” David Rubin, the research group’s director, said in a recent interview. “And I don’t think that we need to have that threshold at this point.” Given declines in case rates and hospitalizations from COVID-19 and the availability of vaccines and boosters, people can make their own choices around masking depending on their personal risks and risk tolerance, he said.

He also noted the “acrimony” in school communities around masks. “I don’t think that the current virulence of this virus ... demands continuing that level of division,” Rubin said.

Yet the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, like the national organization, still recommends universal masking in schools, said Christina Master, cochair of the Pennsylvania group’s school health committee.

“Even though the virulence has been lower, there are still people dying,” Master said. She noted that children under 5 aren’t yet eligible for vaccination. And while kids are at lower risk for severe infection, risk still exists, she said.

“Taking away masking a little bit late has far fewer negative and terrible consequences than removing masking a little too early,” she said.

Still, Master said it may be possible to relax masking requirements at a higher level of community transmission than authorities have previously recommended, given the lesser severity of the omicron variant.

Some parents who have been supportive of masking say they’re open to schools making it optional. But they’re wary of rolling back requirements without accounting for the possibility of the pandemic worsening again, and of schools bowing to pressure from parents opposed to masking at any point.

“They want the message of masks are gone forever,” said Tara Haarlander, a parent in the Downingtown Area School District, where at a school board meeting earlier this month a man scuffled with a security guard who said he needed to wear a mask, and a woman who screamed at the board, “Who are you without COVID? You’re nobody!” was directed to leave after refusing to stop when her time was up.

“The pandemic is not over, unfortunately,” said Haarlander, who wants the district to set standards for a return to masking if needed. A district spokesperson said the board would discuss next steps at a March 2 meeting.

In Bucks County, where numerous districts dropped mask requirements after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the state’s mandate in December, some have further rolled back pandemic measures. Central Bucks and Council Rock have scrapped their public COVID-19 dashboards; at a meeting this month, one Council Rock board member also objected to lunchtime distancing requirements for students returning from isolation, suggesting the district could still create “tables for the fearful” who wanted to sit apart.

Other districts have stuck with mask requirements, including Philadelphia, where a city mandate remains in effect. In Cheltenham, a spokesperson said the district plans to keep its requirement through the end of the school year, “unless the data indicates we should move in a different direction.”

In Lower Merion, where the district said Friday that its health and safety team was “working towards a pathway to a ‘mask recommended/encouraged’ environment,” parents in favor of optional masking have voiced increasing frustration as administrators have cited Montgomery County Office of Public Health guidance.

“Parents are starting to crack, because it’s like, hopeless,” said Mark Fasano, a Lower Merion parent who noted the district is still requiring masks outdoors at recess. “They give no indication they care about what this is doing to our young people.”

A county spokesperson said Thursday that the office “is reviewing and discussing indicators that we will use to guide our recommendations in this next phase of the pandemic. We do not yet have a timeline for release.”

Fasano pointed to Wallingford-Swarthmore’s approach as a possible model for tying masking to the virus’ presence within schools, rather than the outside community. The district shifted to optional masking earlier this month for school buildings that maintained a case rate of less than 2% over 14 days. Other districts, including Haverford and Radnor, have moved to adopt variations of that approach.

A group of Wallingford-Swarthmore parents objected to the move, with 150 signing a letter asking for continued universal masking, messaging to promote higher-quality masks, and consideration of community transmission rates.

“Of course we don’t want to keep masks on forever. We just like to err on the side of caution,” said Tilottama Karlekar, whose children are in second and sixth grades. In “the rush to normal, we’re kind of ignoring the needs of some of the people who are sicker or older.”

Kelly Wachtman, the Wallingford-Swarthmore school board president, acknowledged pushback from some parents. But “what I’ve heard, honestly … is more about when. Not so much if,” she said. She noted that the district also faced opposition when it returned to in-person instruction.

“I haven’t had anybody come to us to say, ‘I wish we hadn’t returned to full in-person learning,’” she said. “At some point, you do have to begin to move forward.”