The issue of masks in schools has been hotly debated across the nation, and that debate came to Northampton on Monday, August 23, during the Northampton Area School District Board of School Directors meeting. Despite the threats of reelection voiced to them by a small crowd of frustrated parents, every member of the school board voted in favor of requiring masks for what they say is the safety of their students.
The mask mandate will be in effect for all students, staff and visitors to any of the district’s school buildings starting on August 25. It will run until October 1. At that time, the board and administrators will analyze community spread data and the advice of local health experts to determine how to move forward. Disposable masks will be available for students, staff, and visitors. Students who do not abide by these requirements may be sent home.
Cases, said Superintendent Joseph S. Kovalchik, are rising in Northampton, with five cases reported in the school district in the past seven days. These cases have the potential to spread, not only among students, but among faculty, staff, grandparents, and other family members. This spread is already starting to occur, he told the audience.
Requiring masks, he continued, will help stop the community spread and prevent the school from shutting down completely. For students who so choose or may be quarantined, e-learning will be available. Teachers will livestream their instruction during the day. 120 students are already enrolled in e-learning.
The board told parents that they did not take this decision lightly, studying the data of local health experts, watching case numbers in Northampton County, and listening to state guidelines. They also followed the lead of neighboring school districts, they said, most of which have passed similar requirements.
“We are here to help our students achieve an education,” said Board President David Gogel. “We do not want to chance children getting COVID if we can help it.”
The most vocal members of the audience were parents against masks for their children. While some voiced that the choice should be left up to the parents, others voiced skepticism regarding the data behind mask and vaccine safety.
Jerry Bretzik of Moore Township wanted to see data from the school board on COVID morbidities.
“You say masks are going to save our kids? Are you kidding me?” he said. “[A mask] is a diaper. That’s all it is…a dirty, stinky diaper.”
“How many children have died of this?” he continued, telling the board that their data on the pandemic is wrong.
“Enough,” one woman in the audience said from behind a mask.
According to data from the CDC as of August 14, 430 children under 18 have died of COVID-19.
“How about an aunt, or a brother, or a sister, or a mother, or a father…if they pass away…what do you say to that?” countered Chuck Frantz, vice president of the board.
Research has indicated that 25% of children infected with COVID-19 will spread it to others.
Bretzik was subsequently removed from the meeting following a later outburst in which he shouted profanities and claimed that the pandemic was caused by immigration.
One mother worried about the long-term effects of mask-wearing.
“Do we have any idea what this is going to do to our children ten years from now?” she asked “How do we know in ten years we may not be hearing that your child wore a face mask…[and] this may have happened to their lungs?”
“It’s not my job to protect everybody else,” she continued. “I don’t say that to sound selfish…My job is to protect my daughter.”
Tara Burger, an oncologist nurse from Bath, asked the board to think about the decisions they are going to make. “I don’t know where the transparency is now…think of these kids.”
While those against masks in school were the most vocal, there were several in the audience in favor of requiring masks in school
Chris Vogel of Moore Township, who was wearing a mask to the meeting, was in favor of masks. “I am in support of anything to keep in-person instruction alive and well in our school district.”
In the end, the school board unanimously voted to require masks in school, to the disappointment of some members of the outspoken audience.
“I know we have had some heated discussions here tonight,” said board member James Chuss, “[but]…[COVID] does scare me. I am sorry. I see it firsthand.” Chuss owns and operates a disinfectant business that has cleaned numerous buildings where outbreaks have occurred during the pandemic.
“Politics has no place here,” he continued. “I don’t know who is Democratic and who is Republican on this school board…it doesn’t matter…we are all here for one thing…the good of the students.”