RUSSELL, Pa. – Masks will be required for everyone, unless they have a valid exemption, inside all Warren County School District Schools beginning Sept.7.
The WCSD Board of Directors could not agree on a revision to the Health and Safety Plan, in response to the state-issued mask order, during an emergency meeting Thursday morning (Sept. 2).
Some board members looked for ways to give parents a choice about face coverings, while still remaining in compliance with the Department of Health’s Aug. 31 order, others argued that failure to comply fully would put the district in legal and financial jeopardy.
“I want the public to know, we’ve checked with three different solicitors and they’ve all said that we do not have a choice in this,” Board member Mary Passinger said. “If we do not follow the mandate, the district could be liable for all kinds of things. I’m all for parent choice, but we don’t have that choice.”
“I think it’s important for the public to know that this is really not in our hands,” Board member Joe Colosimo said. “I mean we open ourselves and our administrators and our staff to liability. We’re getting threats from insurance companies that they won’t cover claims if we don’t follow the mandate. And so, I just want to make it perfectly clear that I’m for parent choice.”
Originally on the agenda was an update to the Plan that would have made indoor masking mandatory in all district schools and laid out disciplinary action, as Insubordination under the current Discipline Code, for non-compliance.
Board member Arthur Stewart made a motion to add an exception where the “school district will assume the face covering will either cause a medical condition or exacerbate an existing condition including respiratory issues and impede breathing, a mental health condition or disability. Any person that is asserting an inability to wear a face covering, because of a medical or mental condition is not required to provide a doctor’s or others proof.”
“I want to encourage support for my motion because I think it’s the best of both worlds,” Stewart said. “With my motion, parents can send their children to school without masks. Whereas a rigid adaptation that doesn’t have my exceptions would force everyone to wear a mask. Our parents are the best folks in a position to know the condition of their children.”
Solicitor Chris Byham said that exception would put the district out of compliance with the state order.
“The order requires not that the disability or condition be assumed, the order requires that it be asserted and that the district exhausts reasonable accommodations such as a face shield or perhaps something else before an exemption is granted,” Byham said. “In terms of the letter of the order. I don’t think that this motion would be in compliance.”
Superintendent Amy Stewart said the district already has a process in place for those wishing to claim exemptions to the face-covering requirement.
“There is a process under the Plan that’s posted,” Byham said. “There’s a process in there to get an exemption for those medical conditions. You’ve just got to go through the process.”
Passinger asked what kind of message the board would send to students by finding a way to circumvent the state mandate.
“We ask students to do stuff every single day that they do not want to do,” Passinger said. “And we always go back on this comment that it is the rule, you have to do it because these are the rules. Now the same people are turning around and saying, ‘We don’t like this rule.’ So we are going to sneak around it. So we don’t have to follow it. What kind of message is that sending to our students, our kids? Yeah, follow the rules as long as you like them. But the minute there’s one that you don’t like, figure out a way to get around it.”
Colosimo argued that Gov. Tom Wolf was sending a similar message by issuing the mandate through the DoH.
“Let me ask this, what kind of message are we sending when the governor himself is the one that went around the rules that he was given by the legislature to invent a reason to require another mandate,” Colosimo said. “And so that’s okay, because we agree with it. But then when people who disagree with it all of a sudden say, ‘Well, let’s find a way around it.’ Now we’re setting a bad example to the kids?”
The motion to comply with the state order with the exception failed 5-4, with Passinger, Marcy Morgan, Donna Zariczny, Colosimo and Paul Mangione voting against and Stewart, Jeff Labesky, Kevin Lindvay and Elizabeth Huffman in favor.
Morgan then made a motion to vote on the revised Plan as presented (full compliance with the state order).
That motion failed in a 5-3 vote with Colosimo, Mangione, Labesky, Lindvay and Huffman opposed and Passinger, Morgan and Zariczny in favor. Stewart did not participate in the second vote as prior obligations forced him to leave the meeting before the vote was taken.
The lack of action on the district’s Plan means district administration must fully adhere to the state’s order.
“In the absence of a motion from the board, I in my position have no choice but to follow the order,” Amy Stewart said. “It’s not a decision-making point for me.”
Under the state order issued Aug. 31, all school entities must “Require and enforce the requirement that all teachers, children/students, staff, and visitors (subject to the exceptions in Section 3) wear a face-covering indoors, regardless of whether this Order is reflected in a school entity’s Health and Safety Plan.”
Those wishing to claim an exemption must go through the exemption process before it can be granted.
“There is an exemption for those that truly qualify for an exemption because of a medical, mental or disability,” Byham said. “There is an exemption process (in place) to get that.”
Huffman asked what would happen if a parent sends their child to school Tuesday without a mask or a valid exemption.
“They’ll be denied entry to a classroom,” Amy Stewart said. “We didn’t have that issue last year, quite frankly. We were able to talk to kids and remind them and 99 percent of the time, kids complied and we were able to continue to teach. But with the order in place, I have no wiggle room administratively in terms of following through with the order. So we have to enforce the order.”
More than 200 people attended the virtual-only meeting and nine community members spoke to the board about the state order, seven opposed and two in favor. Many of those opposed cited panic attacks occurring as a result of wearing a mask and stated they would likely be forced to pull their children out of classrooms if masks are required.
“This isn’t about what we want,” Amy Stewart said. “Nobody here wants children to have panic attacks. Nobody here wants to have children with medical conditions. Anything that we want is out of our control, the state has taken control.”
Multiple board members expressed frustration with the lack of action by lawmakers in both Washington and Harrisburg.
“One of the things we heard a lot about is choice,” Mangione said. “We as board members have not had a choice since 3/15/20 when all of this COVID stuff started. (State Representative) Kathy Rapp won’t return my phone calls, she just says it’s up to the school board now. Washington and Harrisburg just want to play political games where our kids are pawns. Nowhere have we talked about education. All we talk about is COVID.”
“I’m catching a lot of heat for decisions that are (according to) Kathy Rapp, ‘the local school board’s decision’,: Colosimo said. “And we’re not getting any help out of Washington, we’re not getting any help out of Harrisburg, and we’re getting mandated. Harrisburg and Washington really do need to do something to help local school districts instead of just saying we’re gonna make it a local decision, and then throw mandate at us and threaten us and threaten our funding and everything else.”