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Council Rock has granted mask exemptions to 20% of its students. Cheltenham hasn’t had any. How the mask fight continues to play out in Pa.

While the mask debate appears to have largely faded in many Philadelphia-area communities, challenges continue in court and schools, with hostility often apparent in how exemptions are regarded.

Council Rock South High School ninth grader Lily Beard (left) and her mother, Rachel Beard. Lily said it seems as if half the kids at school aren’t wearing masks.
Council Rock South High School ninth grader Lily Beard (left) and her mother, Rachel Beard. Lily said it seems as if half the kids at school aren’t wearing masks.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Sometimes when Lily Beard is running late for her second-period class, the only open seat is in front of a group of boys who don’t wear masks.

“They’re always coughing and being disgusting behind me,” said Lily, a ninth grader at Council Rock South High School, where, she said, it seems as if half the kids aren’t wearing masks.

“It’s completely unfair that we can’t go to school and learn and be safe.”

With coronavirus cases surging as classes began, Pennsylvania last month imposed a school mask requirement for the second year in a row — spurring outrage from opponents and lawsuits from parents, including a top Republican leader. Others sued their schools for not adequately complying. While the debate appears to have largely faded in many Philadelphia collar-county communities, challenges continue in court and schools, with hostility often apparent in how exemption requests are regarded and granted.

“I think it has to do with the political climate in a community,” said Jim Crisfeld, superintendent in the Wissahickon School District. “It doesn’t have to do with the schools.”

» READ MORE: Now that Pa. has a school mask mandate, has the rancor subsided? It has not.

North Penn, with 13,000 students, granted most of its 47 requests, allowable by the state if wearing a mask “would either cause a medical condition, or exacerbate an existing one.” Crisfeld’s district has received a “handful” of exemption requests. Lower Merion has reported fewer than a dozen, and in Cheltenham, officials weren’t aware of anyone who had sought exemptions.

In Bucks, Council Rock officials say nearly 20% of the district’s 10,500 students were granted exemptions. The 18,000-student Central Bucks School District says it’s received about 1,100 exemption requests and has allowed those students to go without masks.

Both those districts only require parents, not doctors, to approve the requests — pointing to language in the order that they accommodate people who “state they have a medical condition” — and are being sued by parents of students with disabilities who argue they’re defying the order and endangering their children.

“Our clients are regularly getting notices — their children have been identified as close contacts of someone with COVID. It’s terrifying,” said Adrianna Cherkas, a lawyer for the parents suing Central Bucks, some of whose children have conditions that put them at higher risk of illness.

On the state level, Republicans and other masking opponents are continuing to fight the order. A panel of Commonwealth Court judges heard oral arguments last week in two cases — including one brought in part by Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman — saying acting Health Secretary Alison Beam didn’t have the authority to issue the requirement. The judges have not yet ruled. (In New Jersey, a group of nearly 20 parents and children filed a lawsuit in July against Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration over the state’s school mask mandate.)

The Pennsylvania Department of Education told school districts in September that permitting a parent’s sign-off alone without evidence of a medical condition didn’t comply with the order.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania appeals court takes up school mask challenge

But Central Bucks argues its less restrictive policy hasn’t caused problems. “Given the district’s extremely low COVID-19 infection rate (0.3% per week), the district’s approach is obviously working,” its lawyers said in a court filing.

The Reopen Bucks group, which opposes masking, released an analysis last week of COVID-19 case rates this fall throughout Bucks County. The group’s founder, Josh Hogan, said he used Bucks County data, not school case counts, and found no difference in community spread between districts with stricter COVID-19 mitigation policies and those allowing more mask exemptions and less stringent quarantine rules.

“Are they actually achieving anything with those policies? It appears not,” said Hogan. A Bucks County spokesperson said Tuesday it had not reviewed Hogan’s video.

Meanwhile, Council Rock parents opposed to the district’s mask exemption policy say higher rates of COVID-19 are more prevalent in its elementary schools (with 90 cases as of Oct. 8; the district’s dashboard has since noted 50 more) compared to some districts — including outside Bucks County — with stricter rules.

“What you’re seeing now is a lot of these schools are having COVID cases,” and some classrooms have shifted to virtual learning, said Griselda Zuccarino-Catania, who pulled her children from Council Rock this year in favor of private school because “I can’t send them into this crazy Wild West of infection.”

Experts said it can be difficult to compare COVID-19 rates in schools and communities because different factors come into play — from ventilation of school buildings and spacing, to local vaccination rates and socioeconomic demographics. The CDC has found COVID-19 cases spreading more quickly in counties without school mask requirements.

» READ MORE: Gov. Tom Wolf and teachers say kids are cool with masks: ‘It feels like an adult problem’

Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, questioned whether communities with more parents opposed to masking would be as likely to get their children tested for COVID-19, potentially affecting case counts.

“Unfortunately, it sounds more like a political issue than one based in science,” said Carnethon, who said “there shouldn’t be really very many reasons why one can’t wear a three-layer paper mask over their face.” Even if letting students not wear masks hasn’t translated to surges in some communities, she said, “Are they OK with that risk?”

Some contend schools are being lax not just with mask exemptions, but enforcement. In Central Bucks, the parents suing the district claim students are being allowed to go unmasked regardless of exemption status — pointing in part to surveillance video obtained from schools showing unmasked children passing in hallways. (District lawyers say the parents “cherry picked” screenshots that don’t tell the full story.)

Hogan, of Reopen Bucks, said he believes most students in Council Rock and Pennridge, also in Bucks, don’t wear masks, and those districts also have a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy on enforcing masking.

Pennridge did not respond to requests for comment, while Joe Santarone, a lawyer for Council Rock, said “the vast majority of students are wearing masks,” but declined to comment further.

Ann Pellegrino had requested that her 11-year-old twins not be seated next to unmasked children in their classrooms at Maureen M. Welch Elementary in Council Rock. Still, she believes that didn’t prevent them from catching the virus there: Her daughter developed symptoms and tested positive after being notified she may have been exposed at school. Then her son did, and her husband, who is vaccinated.

“It’s like being in a twilight zone,” said Pellegrino, a nurse practitioner who has been treating COVID-19 patients throughout the pandemic, and who had to stay home from work for two weeks while her family was sick. “It’s poor adulting, is what it is.”

» READ MORE: A Bucks County dad angered by COVID-19 closures gave $500,000 to school board candidates. Critics say it’s fueling ‘toxic’ politics.

Suzy Eaton, whose 11-year-old attends school in the Pennridge District, is convinced her daughter’s recently contracted COVID-19 infection came from school — and is hoping it doesn’t affect an older daughter’s wedding this weekend. Her husband is sleeping in a hotel to avoid exposure.

“I would never put somebody else’s child knowingly at risk. I don’t understand how other people are OK doing that to mine,” said Eaton, a nurse who was “livid” about a message the school board sent last month to parents, announcing its disapproval of the masking order and informing parents they could seek exemptions, no doctor’s note needed.

Adults opposed to masking are “imposing it on their children. We’re teaching them defiance and indifference,” Eaton said.

Those tensions have filtered into Lily Beard’s high school, where the 15-year-old said some kids have harassed those who wear their masks.

“I know so many people who have just stopped wearing their mask in school, because they don’t have to,” she said. “It’s kind of been a free-for-all.”

Her mother, Rachel Beard, said the district is introducing unnecessary risk: While her children are vaccinated, she worries they could still be exposed to the virus and have to quarantine. Her son’s classroom was recently shut for a week due to cases.

“It’s completely unfair,” she said.