The Warren County School District Board of Directors failed in their duty Monday night.
In voting 6-3 to allow parents instead of medical professionals to sign off on a child’s mask exception, despite three district lawyers recommending that they not do so and a letter from the Pennsylvania Department of Education that stated that doing so would put the district out of compliance with the Department of Health’s Mask Mandate, the board abdicated its charge in a representative republican form of government.
The United States is not a democracy in the literal sense of democracy. We don’t all get a vote on every law. We elect people to represent us. And sometimes, those representatives have to do things that are unpopular among their constituency and uphold laws that are passed above them. Just like the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has to follow federal laws, local municipalities like the Warren County School District have to follow Commonwealth laws.
Monday night was one of those nights when it was time for the WCSD to follow a Commonwealth law.
And yes, the mandate is a law because it was authorized by law – in this case, a 1955 law – and that law has consequences for not following it including fines of between $25 and $300 and possible jail time.
While there has been an outcry over the Health Department’s mandate, mainly in rural areas like ours where people seem to distrust government and science for reasons that are sometimes clear and sometimes borderline absurd, that doesn’t change the fact the WCSD had an obligation to uphold the law.
Distrust of government, in itself, doesn’t mean we have the right to not listen or obey the government.
As mentioned above, the Health Department, by law, has the right to mandate masks in a public health emergency making that mandate an actual law. COVID-19 is a public health emergency whether some want to understand that or not.
Even within the context of Monday’s meeting that was known as this vote came after Superintendent Amy Stewart told board members that there were over 100 “circumstances” of COVID-19 in the district and that the district was struggling to keep up with contact tracing with nearly 350 students currently unable to enter district buildings because they are close contacts.
In addition, Tidioute Charter, which while not a WCSD school is a school located in Warren County, is currently remote in grades six through 12 until next week with 17 positive COVID-19 cases in the last 10 days. Nearby, the Penncrest School District has had to close Cambridge Springs Jr/Sr High for two weeks because of COVID-19, and numerous other schools around the region, including neighboring Titusville, have been forced to cancel events because students are testing positive or are close contacts. Even Eisenhower’s originally scheduled football game this week with Seneca was canceled due to COVID issues at Seneca while Youngsville volleyball hasn’t been able to play the last week because of COVID issues at the school.
The simple fact is, unlike last school year when students were relatively unaffected by COVID, this year the virus is hitting students.
This is the reason the Health Department put the mask mandate in place.
This is the reason local government – aka the school board – has the duty to uphold that law.
If Board President Donna Zariczny is to be believed – and there is no reason not to believe her – numerous lawyers told the school board this by recommending the board to not support the action that was taken.
“We’ve spoken with three solicitors,” Zariczny said. “Our human resource solicitor, our Student Service solicitor and our general solicitor, and not one of our solicitors are recommending this direction. I think we should uphold the laws and the regulations that are put before us, because as a legislative body. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
She is 100 percent correct.
It doesn’t matter if that is what people, even the majority of the people, “wanted” them to do. That isn’t how a federal republic works. Those school board members had a duty to enforce the law regardless of what their constituents wanted them to do.
In a federal republic, you change laws through the legislative process. You don’t change them by ignoring them, no matter how little you like them.
What the WCSD Board did Monday night is akin to anarchy. Because of a vocal group that opposed their kids wearing masks, the board said that it didn’t have to follow the law.
When that happens, you get the exact thing all who are against the mask mandate fear the most, a breakdown in our governmental system, a breakdown of our freedoms. When there is anarchy there is no government. When there is no government, the void is usually filled by a strongman or a dictator. This is the first step towards that. The first step to the very thing you fear the most.