After a summer of shifting health guidelines, heated debates over pandemic precautions, and crowds packing school board meetings for shouting matches, it seemed the start of school for thousands of students across the Philadelphia region would finally share one area of common ground: Masks would be mandatory.
But the order from Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration this week didn’t put an end to the drama surrounding some suburban Philadelphia schools — or to concerns about the virus’ ability to upend the nascent school year.
In the Central Bucks School District — where a board member who had been a swing vote on masking said he was resigning due to a death threat — the board decided against requiring a doctor’s approval for parents seeking medical exemptions to the mandate, spurring worries the order would be rendered moot.
The Pennridge school board announced Thursday it would be “actively considering opportunities to participate in any litigation” against the mask mandate. That preceded a lawsuit filed Friday to overturn Wolf’s order by the Republican leader of the state Senate and a group of parents from Berks and Butler Counties.
And in Norristown, the superintendent was serving elementary school lunches and driving vans full of high schoolers as he tried to plug staffing holes that emerged during the pandemic.
”All of our discussions, all of our meetings, have been almost totally absorbed in the practical implementation of keeping schools open for in-person, full-time learning,” said Marc Bertrando, superintendent of the Garnet Valley School District.
“The vitriol, the animosity, the threats of litigation — all of those things, taken in totality, have really been the sole focus of superintendents,” he said.
In Facebook groups started by parents committed to in-person learning last year, some described sending their kids to school as freedom fighters — including a mother who said her young child was sent home after she equipped him with a mask of mesh. She said she’d send him the same way the next day.
Some schools started — and have remained — drama-free, with administrators and teachers saying the return of students to classrooms had been proceeding smoothly.
After teaching 120 students a day for three days, “I haven’t had one issue with a kid not wearing a mask properly,” said Kevin Manero, an English, public speaking, and journalism teacher at North Penn High School.
In the West Chester Area School District, “the temperature to me just seemed to drop a lot” once the school year began Monday, said Superintendent Bob Sokolowski. Students complied with the district’s mask requirement, and while some families filed exemption requests, it’s “not many,” Sokolowski said.
In districts that started the year without requiring masks, some parents responded to the new mandate with anger. Even before Wolf’s announcement, Ridley School District Superintendent Lee Ann Wentzel had fielded a phone call from a parent who said she would transfer her child to another school.
“Well, you can do that, but you’re going to be in a state probably not in the tri-state region,” Wentzel said, noting that New Jersey and Delaware also require masks in schools. (Pennsylvania offers cyber charter schools, and parents can homeschool.)
At a four-hour school board meeting in the Central Bucks School District on Tuesday that came hours after Wolf announced the new order, Doylestown Health chief medical officer Scott Levy described the more transmissible delta variant — “We’ve gone from 10 cases a week diagnosed at Doylestown Hospital in the first week of July to 100″ — and the crowd shouted over him.
Central Bucks residents like Tina Raymond told the board that masking should be a choice. ”Do I trust the guidance of experts? No, they flip-flopped and they’ve been completely wrong,” said Raymond, who said her son died in the H1N1 pandemic. “I trust God and I trust my gut.”
Board member John Gamble, meanwhile, announced his resignation, citing a death threat he received after voting against a mask requirement the week earlier.
“I cannot live my life behind a police escort,” he said. Later, he told the crowd: “COVID has broken you people and it’s disgusting.”
The board’s adoption of a new health and safety plan prompted a group of parents to withdraw an emergency court motion seeking mitigation measures. But a federal judge ordered that parents could refile if the district “and others defy, ignore, challenge, or otherwise fail to comply” with the state mandate.
Rachel Handfinger, a Council Rock parent, was concerned that her district — which started mask-optional — had appeared to follow Central Bucks’ lead in sharing exemption forms that didn’t require a doctor’s signature, which she called “ludicrous.” She also worries about other mitigation strategies; while her twin third graders have been sitting at socially distanced desks at lunchtime, most students are eating at cafeteria tables.
“The masks alone can’t do everything,” Handfinger said.
In Chester, pediatrician Tanner Walsh hears more worries from parents about their children getting sick than complaints about mask guidance. Children, she added, hardly ever complain.
“It’s almost just a rule for them like any other rule that they follow,” said Walsh, who sees patients at Crozer Pediatrics in Upland and at a federally qualified health center, ChesPenn Health Services, on the east side of Chester. What concerns families, she said, is not knowing how long in-person school will last, even with masks.
To what extent coronavirus cases have emerged in schools in the first days of classes isn’t yet clear. In Montgomery County, spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco said that “we continue to see outbreaks in schools and child cares” and that some classrooms have “had to cancel activities” due to the inability to complete contact tracing. The Pottstown School District, which had a mask mandate in place, was directed to shut a kindergarten and two fifth-grade classrooms to prevent the virus’ spread after only a week of school.
In Lancaster County, many schools hadn’t been requiring masks, and Bart Ciurski, a substitute teacher in the Conestoga Valley School District, was growing more concerned as the school year neared. He hoped the new requirement would help.
“It’s starting to seem like it’s creeping back up,” Ciurski said of the virus, adding some uncertainty to his plans for group work in the high school health class he’ll be teaching. He anticipated that masking would have an impact in the classroom — he felt students were quiet last year, not eager to speak up — but that enforcement wouldn’t be too much of an issue.
Graham Baird, who has a sixth and second grader in the Doylestown Area School District, doesn’t know whether masks will prevent COVID spread in schools. But he doesn’t object to a requirement — and is desperate not to return to last year’s “mess” of Zoom school, which was hard on his children.
“Chill out,” he said of the parental rancor. “Anything we can do to get kids in schools that makes people as comfortable as possible — let’s do it.”
He and parents like Carrie Nielsen, who has a fourth grader in the Radnor School District and a 4-year-old in preschool, are hoping to see less vitriol around their schools this year.
While Radnor was already requiring masks, the mandate “takes the pressure off the superintendent and school board,” said Nielsen, who supports masking but wishes for more normalcy in schools. Last year, her older daughter and classmates ate lunch at desks, and played at recess with only each other. (“Like a lot of parents, I’m angry at the people who have chosen not to get vaccinated,” contributing to the virus’ spread, Nielsen said.)
Norristown Area School District Superintendent Christopher Dormer hasn’t faced uproar over masking requirements. The district has taken a conservative approach — not reopening last year in person until April — and parents likely knew what to expect, Dormer said.
Still, he’s managing other pandemic repercussions. Staffing is a challenge: Dormer was manning a lunch line at one elementary school Wednesday as the district struggles to fill positions.
“You talk to any superintendent, any educator right now — if we could only focus on teaching and learning, life would be so good,” Dormer said.
Staff writers Erin McCarthy and Justine McDaniel contributed to this article.