In a move they knew would certainly upset some parents, Southern Lehigh School Board members voted 8-1 Monday to approve a health and safety plan that mandates the use of face masks by students and staff, at least until the second board meeting in September.
The decision was made at the conclusion of a five-and-a-half hour Zoom meeting (see below for meeting videos uploaded to the SLSD Transparency YouTube channel) attended by more than 700 people that included comments by dozens of district residents and parents, some of whom identified themselves as physicians in favor of the measure meant to prevent the spread of COVID.
One physician, who is also a candidate for school board, broke with his colleagues in the medical field by questioning the efficacy of masks in preventing the virus’s spread.
Christopher Wayock, who is a perinatologist according to his LinkedIn profile, told the board “it is unconscionable to require children to wear masks for hours at a time.”
“Please don’t give in to the fearmongering that is being propagated by the media,” he told them. “As any pediatrician will tell you, children are not little adults. They deserve to be treated differently.”
Wayock, who is running as part of a slate of conservative candidates from the Southern Lehigh Advocates for Full Education private Facebook group, accused several other physicians who spoke of not providing data to support their claims and suggested that the board “compromise” if it required masks by allowing for “mask breaks” every 15 minutes.
Other doctors also spoke passionately about the issue, telling the board that without required masking, students will have a disrupted school year similar to the 2020-2021 school year, when frequent COVID outbreaks closed classrooms to in-person instruction.
“Masking is effective in preventing transmission in schools and in the community,” said anesthesiologist Kenneth Andrejko. “This simple act of masking will keep schools open.”
Pulmonologist Neal Fitzpatrick told the board that COVID isn’t necessarily a once-and-done illness. He said he has treated marathon runners who are still suffering from the disease’s lingering effects, to the point that some of them can barely jog a mile now.
“I truly cannot believe that we continue to have discussions on what we know to be the simplest way to…reduce transmission of this virus, proven again and again,” he said. “Each breath covered by a mask is greatly diminished in its ability to transmit a respiratory virus.”
Fitzpatrick didn’t dispute statistics about the rarity of severe COVID-related illness and death in children and adolescents, but said it’s “unequivocally unacceptable” to advocate for less rigorous prevention strategies if doing so could contribute to those statistics.
Some of the doctors and scientists who spoke were signatories to a Letter from Medical Professionals and Parents to the SLSD School Board on the petition website Change.org.
In the letter, which was shared with board members prior to Monday’s meeting, the signatories urged the board to “support…a dynamic, data-informed universal mask mandate while local SARS-CoV2 transmission levels are high” by following its own 2021-2022 Health and Safety Plan, which it quoted. Among the plan’s goals, the letter noted, are utilizing the most up-to-date guidance and recommendations from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; focusing on “the maximization of in-person instructional opportunities…[while implementing safety protocols that consider] the level of community spread” in the district; and engaging “in active consultation with medical staff and public health officials…in an effort to ensure that the information within the SLSD Health and Safety Plan is relevant.”
“Both the Center for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics both support universal masking for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals in the indoor setting,” it was noted in the letter, which included 15 footnotes citing academic sources.
A separate petition on Change.org, “Petition for Mask Mandate at Southern Lehigh School District,” received nearly 900 signatures by the time Monday’s meeting was held.
That petition and comments by some of the parents who spoke during the meeting referenced the situation many school districts in southern states such as Mississippi and Florida are now facing, with students forced to quarantine en masse and study online due to their schools’ lack of mask mandates and an increasing number of COVID-19 cases.
Most public health experts have attributed the increase in cases throughout the country to the more highly-transmissable Delta variant that is now the predominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S., to lower vaccination rates and to inconsistent mask use.
Former Southern Lehigh School Board member John Schubert, speaking as a resident, cited some local COVID case statistics Monday.
Schubert told the board that the average number of new COVID cases in Lehigh County was up by 91 percent over the previous two weeks, while the average for COVID-related hospitalizations was up by 72 percent during the same period. Current statistics related to cases may be found on the CDC website as well as the site CovidActNow.org.
As of Thursday, CDC data indicated that Lehigh County was averaging approximately 195 new cases per week per 100,000 residents (719 cases per week total), which represented a 35 percent increase in caseload over the previous week. The CDC site rated the county’s transmission level “High,” while Covid Act Now has its risk level–along with neighboring Northampton County’s–rated as “Very High.”
“It’s not that tough, really,” said Schubert, who called wearing a mask the “patriotic” thing to do under the circumstances. “Wear a mask…and don’t believe the nonsense.”
Schubert and the dozens of other residents who spoke in favor of a mask mandate were in the majority at the meeting, but the minority who spoke out against required masking were frequently forceful in expressing their opposition to the idea.
“You will not put a mask on my child,” said Douglas Malitsch, who also criticized the fact that the board meeting was held only online, instead of online and in the high school cafeteria as it had originally been advertised.
“You will not hide from us…and you will ultimately be held accountable,” he added.
“My children will not be wearing a mask,” said parent Marie Ault. “It is child abuse.”
Ault said the masks her daughters were required to wear in school last year made them anxious and depressed, affected personal relationships and interfered with their learning.
In one instance, she said her daughter thought an acquaintance was giving her a “dirty look,” only to find out later that the girl was actually smiling at her. She was unable to properly read her friend’s facial expression because a mask was in the way, Ault said.
She also questioned their effectiveness at preventing transmission, telling the board that her daughters came down with COVID-like symptoms several times last year. Despite that, she said she remained healthy despite the fact that they didn’t wear masks at home, adding that she is “very immune-compromised.”
Parent Stephanie Tomlinson, who started a petition asking that masks be optional in Southern Lehigh schools, told the board she was disappointed by the doctors who spoke in favor of masking because she didn’t think they provided enough supportive evidence.
“We look at the incident rates, but we don’t look at the death rates,” she told the board. “It’s very important we look at all this data.”
“While some children are OK with wearing masks, some are not,” she added. “It’s important for this board to be inclusive.”
Several parents said they were disappointed because they felt allowing the option to wear a mask was itself a compromise, and that they were being forced to compromise further.
As of Thursday, Tomlinson’s petition on Change.org had received nearly 900 signatures, which was nearly as many as the petition asking for mandatory masks had received.
The words of many of the parents who spoke during the meeting–on both sides of the issue–made it clear that the pandemic has changed life in America for a long time to come, if not forever. Their words often highlighted the emotional losses they are trying to prevent their children from experiencing, but sometimes–perhaps unwittingly–spoke to their own.
Jill Hedges told the board she has a problem with parents who are demanding masks be worn in school, but then allowing their children to play youth sports unmasked.
“Hypocrisy is one of my biggest pet peeves,” she said.
Hedges said there’s fear in the community among mandatory masking opponents that their views–if they’re outspoken about them–could cost them things like jobs.
“Fear is everywhere,” she told the board, and claimed that she has spoken to a physician who is afraid to speak in public at a board meeting due to potential work repercussions.
Perhaps one of the most pointed arguments for masking came from a Southern Lehigh High School student named Nathan, who said that at his band practice Monday only five or six students out of about 100 had voluntarily worn some type of face covering.
He contradicted a parent who had spoken at the meeting about the anxiety she said kids feel when they are forced to wear masks by telling the board he believes students have experienced more anxiety due to a lack of masking, especially when cases are on the rise.
School board members, for the better part of three-and-a-half hours, listened to public comment on the masking question and then to a COVID-19 data presentation by school district assistant superintendent Tom Ruhf.
Once again, Ruhf told the board that he is limited in the level of detail he can provide the board, because Lehigh County lacks its own health department.
The board then discussed the logistics of the new school year with COVID precautions in place, such as lunch time, when masks will not be worn. Ruhf told board members students will be spread out and required to face the same direction when eating during lunch periods; something that board member Jeffrey Dimmig asked him about.
Dimmig said that with all of the students eating in the same room, he questioned whether facing them in the same direction would really be of much benefit.
Ruhf noted that it is especially difficult for younger children to maintain distance during lunch periods, when their natural urge to play and even horseplay sometimes brings them into close contact with one another.
Several board members asked Ruhf about masking breaks, and what those might entail.
He said he hadn’t yet planned them out in detail, since it was still unclear whether the board would require masks.
When it came time to discuss the three options the board had for masking–including optional masking, mandatory masking and a hybrid option similar to what Saucon Valley recently adopted in which optional or mandatory masking is tied to the level of COVID transmission occurring in the community–the board entered into a lengthy discussion.
Dimmig was adamant that he could not support a mandatory masking plan if it did not include a “sunset” date, such as language that specified it will expire at a certain time unless it is reauthorized by the board at that time. He said that without that, he feared the mandate would be “neverending” and compared it with the hybrid schooling option the district adopted and utilized for most of the last school year.
A lengthy discussion about specific wording ensued, with board member Emily Gehman cautioning Dimmig that if the board did not carefully word the part of the motion regarding the timing of the mandate, members of the public would likely expect it to end on the date when it may in fact be reauthorized.
“You said you were going to end it,” she told him. “I think we owe it to our community to be as transparent in that regard as possible.”
The language that was ultimately chosen to update the motion was:
Effective August 24, 2021, masks are required for a period of five weeks in all indoor spaces and on buses. This requirement may be reauthorized at any time by the Board of School Directors.
The only vote against approving the option that included the five-week minimum mask mandate was made by board member William Lycett, who said he wasn’t sure the board even had the authority to institute such a requirement.
“I don’t think we have the ability to enforce this at all,” he said.
“We thank all of the community members who have reached out to express their opinions,” Ruhf and interim superintendent Dr. Larry Mussoline said in a letter posted to the site following the meeting. “Voicing differing opinions is a characteristic of strong community involvement. It is the American way. We recognize, welcome and respect that there are many different opinions in our school community about what should and should not be done in regards to health and safety planning in this COVID world we live in.”