RUSSELL, Pa. – Despite having three district lawyers recommend against it, the Warren County School District Board of Directors voted to adopt a new mask exception measure during Monday’s regular board meeting as COVID-19 “circumstances” topped 100 in the first nine days of school.
The new measure will allow parents to claim a mask exception for their child without substantiation from a medical professional. The measure passed 6-3 despite three district solicitors’ recommendations that it would put the district out of compliance with the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s Aug. 31, 2021, indoor-mask order. Arthur Stewart was joined by board members Joe Colosimo, Paul Mangione, Elizabeth Huffman, Kevin Lindvay and Jeff Labesky voted in favor of the resolution, while Marcy Morgan, Mary Passinger and Zariczny opposed.
“We’ve spoken with three solicitors,” Zariczny, the Board President, 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.”
The “recommended action”, put forth by board member Arthur Stewart, a lawyer himself, disagreed with the solicitors.
Presented as a “Letter announcing compliance with the DOH order,” the measure stated that if wearing a face covering “causes or exacerbates a medical or mental condition” an exception form must be submitted to the district.
“At the current time the order does not state a requirement that the medical or mental condition must be substantiated by a medical professional,” Arthur Stewart’s letter states. “However, in the future, if the Order is modified to require substantiation by a medical professional it will be necessary for you to provide that substantiation in order to continue the exception.”
Passinger argued the district had received additional guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Education that specifically said substantiation by a medical professional is required for an exception.
“I would like to read one more time what was sent to the district in the last couple of days from PDE,” Passinger said. “‘Relatedly, this order is not a mask-optional policy. Any school entity simply permitting a parent sign off without evidence that the student has a medical or mental health condition or disability that precludes the wearing of a face covering is not in compliance with the order.”
Passinger added the board members, and district administration and teachers could open themselves to a potential lawsuit, or termination for staff and administration, down the line by adopting this resolution.
The measure passed after WCSD Superintendent Amy Stewart informed the board that the district had handled more than 100 COVID-19 circumstances through the first nine days of school. Stewart also said that nearly 350 students are unable to enter district buildings due to being a close contact.
“We’ve handled 106 different circumstances so far this school year in nine days,” Stewart said. “Definitely the pace is a lot different than it was last year, we’re getting it right out of the gate. Right now we have 35 positives that have impacted the school district, and they are spread out all over. We’re not seeing necessarily a pocket where everything’s in one attendance area or another. And then 349 students that have been denied entry because of being close contacts.”
Amy Stewart said she has had to add more people to the contact tracing team in order to keep pace with the incidents.
“Right now they’re working really hard, I keep adding people to the team so that we have more people on the team to be able to do the contact tracing, but it’s a big task ahead of us,” Stewart said.
Arthur Stewart argued that the Commonwealth pulled a bait-and-switch when it put forth the mask recommendation after saying it would allow school districts to make the decisions for themselves.
“I want to say that out of the years I’ve been around, which is too many to count, this is the most contentious issue that we have had,” Stewart said. “This is a situation foisted upon us because promises have been broken. We were told that school districts and parents could have their choice after a really brutal year last year, and that’s the way we opened the school year and people set up their lives that way and then the carpet is pulled out from underneath us, and we’re left to pick up the pieces.
“I’ve heard the argument that this academic year should be the same as last year and if we were masks last year that that’s going to be what happens issue without incident. I don’t think that’s accurate. The other thing that’s happened, that’s different than last year is our children can go to Walmart, they can go to a Penn State game with 80,000 people, they can go anywhere without masks, except to school (editor’s note masks are required on public transportation, including school buses, in airports, in some private businesses, and in most health-care facilities, including doctor’s offices). And that’s very different than last year, and how do you explain that to a child?”