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Masks optional for 2021-22

The July 27 Saucon Valley School Board meeting featured the highly-anticipated unveiling – and ultimately adoption – of the district’s 2021-22 Health and Safety Plan. The plan, which was first rolled out and discussed at the July 14 Facility Committee meeting, is required by the Pennsylvania Department of Health due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Contrary to an update to the CDC’s recommendations, released earlier in the day, which call for universal masking for all students, teachers and staff regardless of vaccination status, the board and administration agreed that masks will only remain mandatory on school buses and other modes of official district transportation. Masks will be optional for all persons inside school buildings, regardless of vaccination status.

District parent Ashley Wilson, who was the only voice during the public comment section, shared her trepidation over the rumored lack of masking requirements through an email read aloud by business manager David Bonenberger. “If masks are going to remain optional, parents should have the choice to (opt for) virtual learning if they are uncomfortable sending their children to school under these circumstances,” she was quoted as saying.

She said she would be fine with optional masks once vaccines are available for their second grader’s age group. “My daughter wearing a mask won’t really protect her from sick people” who choose to go maskless, Wilson’s email continued. “It feels like we kept our daughter out of school for a year and a half for no reason, since cases are going back up and people won’t be wearing masks. Why are we backpedaling when we are so close to the finish line?”

Superintendent Dr. Craig Butler, who was observed wearing a mask at meetings and school functions throughout June – as he disclosed that he had not been vaccinated – shared some thoughts and details as he joined the meeting virtually from his home.

“We circulated surveys to parents, staff, faculty (and) we had administrative team discussion and input…,” he said of the drafting process. In response, board member Sandra Miller asked if the surveys were distributed before or after revised guidance from the American Association of Pediatrics, which was released July 18.

Assistant to the Superintendent Jaime Vlasaty said to her recollection, parent/guardian surveys were distributed at the end of June or early July, but staff surveys were collected at the end of the 2020-21 school year. Butler said optional masking was the “majority choice of all stakeholders.”

The other major component of the plan up for discussion was physical distancing, as it calls for three feet distance between all folks at all times. Board Vice President Dr. Shamim Pakzad, who said that he was in support of the measure in theory, did question how practical the strategy might be under certain conditions, such as in science labs and during group projects.

Board member Cedric Dettmar noted “I think three-foot distance is not that much bigger than your normal personal space… but I do think that it’s important to try to follow that guideline, especially in the elementary school. The number of kids vaccinated in the elementary school is zero percent… I think we need to be especially cautious.”

In 2020, Dettmar said, COVID “almost went away in the summer,” but 2021 has proven different, with cases increasing nationally over the past few weeks even in areas with greater portions of the population fully inoculated. “Making predictions about how this thing’s going to go is tough,” he said, although he pointed to the flexibility embedded in the plan’s language allowing for “adjustments as new developments arise.”

“All these recommendations are getting more political and it’s harder to take them as seriously as we go on. We need to be cautious,” he added. “If we start having an outbreak, there is going to be a lot of people… who withdraw their kids from school. We could even have our staff decide that they don’t want to take the risk of coming to school. We could end up shutting our school down for lack of caution.”

Board member Shawn Welch shared his thoughts, pointing to a “file” which he said he received from Vlasaty which he claimed, without evidence, indicates a possible irregularity in COVID tests, showing false positives for the SARS-CoV-2 virus which were simply common influenza cases. He also claimed that there were “multiple pediatric groups out there,” with “one calling for masks, while the others say ‘no.’” It was not immediately clear which ‘other groups’ he was referring to.

He described going to a local CVS earlier in the day to observe over-the-counter tests being sold, saying he was “doing (his) own research online” and that the tests are supposedly “fraught with issues.” Welch also called into question the efficacy of vaccines, saying, “none of these vaccines have been through clinical trials… zippo!” He also claimed that “once a week,” the vaccines were being linked to side effects. He again offered no evidence to support his claims.

Miller pushed back against the call for optional masking, saying, “I think we were successful (in 2020-21) because students and staff wore masks.” She also said she was concerned about transitions between classes and students gathering in the halls, suggesting mitigation measures set the prior year helped to avoid such occurrences. She warned that she intended to vote ‘no’ because the plan goes against the CDC’s revised guidelines.

Pakzad also referenced lessons learned from the 2020-21 school year, noting it wasn’t until early August that the Pennsylvania Department of Health issued mandated mitigation guidelines for all schools which planned to offer in-person learning. However, he said he was comfortable with the plan because of the flexibility built into the language. “I’m not seeing any issues here where we are not nimble enough to be able to adapt” if something similar were to happen as conditions worsen across the state.

Governor Tom Wolf did announce earlier in the day that he was not intending on issuing any mandates related to COVID-19 for the upcoming school year.

Pakzad did, however, urge the board to remain cognizant of those who would be uncomfortable with the plan. “We try to do our best to accommodate our neighbors,” he said, and referred to students with food allergies. Although the issue only impacts a small percentage of kids, “We don’t say ‘we don’t care,’” he said. “We go a long way to make sure that these kids are safe.”

“I think it is incumbent to do as much as we can to accommodate” all students, Pakzad added. “The fact is that the medical establishment in this country – and the world – has spoken and if I as a parent have concerns about the safety of my child, I’m not paranoid, I’m following the best advice available.” He continued: “Anything that we decide, I’m sure there will be some people who are not comfortable with it for one reason or another.”

Board member Bryan Eichfeld shared some thoughts, which he said was meant to quell the fear which he feels has been “overblown” over COVID-19. “I think it’s really important that we look at the CDC statements as to the mortality rate for people under 17,” he said as he pulled up statistics on his phone.

“We need to follow what the CDC guidelines are, but I truly believe that the masking option is the way to go for our students unless we are mandated to do it,” he said. “The reality is the reality, and the reality is [COVID] does not significantly affect our population of students.”

Pakzad took exception with some of Eichfeld’s comments. “More than half a million people in this country have died as a result of this. I think we should categorically try to avoid minimizing this global pandemic for what it is… There are other ways to look at this,” than by having divisive discussions, he said.

“If a small percentage of our students do not feel comfortable coming back to school… we are not going to be able to operate,” Pakzad added. “If 50 of our 2,000 students decide not to come back here and go to a charter school, that is going to severely hamper our budget. So you at least have to look at it from that perspective.”

Pakzad continued; ”The way that this discussion is being framed is, if the message that goes out from this board is that we are a bunch of people who have dismissed [COVID] and don’t care… then anything that we do, anything that comes out of our mouths after that, they’re not going to listen. The first point of convincing them is acknowledging their concerns and fears. Their concerns and fears are not unreasonable.”

Once the debate settled, at the suggestion of multiple board members, language was added and amended within the plan to allow for more flexibility for immediate action by the administration in response to an emergency outbreak within the district. Ultimately, the plan wound up passing nearly unanimously, with only Miller voting ‘no’ and Michael Karabin absent.

Press photo by Chris Haring Superintendent Dr. Craig Butler shares some thoughts on the district's 2021-22 Health and Safety Plan.