Face masks mandatory in NASD
BY PAUL WILLISTEIN
When schools open Aug. 30 for classes in Northampton Area School District for the 2021-22 academic year, face masks will be required for students, staff and visitors.
Despite often vociferous protests of residents objecting to the mask mandate, NASD Board of Education voted 8-0 (with one vacancy) during the Aug. 23 board meeting to require masks in buildings and at events on district campuses.
Meanwhile, NASD Superintendent of Schools Joseph S. Kovalchik said that with the opening of school just around the corner, the district faces a school bus driver shortage.
The face mask requirement is to be re-evaluated Oct. 1, according to a school official.
Soon after the school board vote to require face masks, a majority of the estimated 45 persons in attendance walked out of the meeting before it officially adjourned.
The board vote reversed previous announcements by the administration that face masks would be optional when the school year starts.
As recently as the Aug. 5 video chat by Kovalchik, the policy was to “strongly recommend,” but not require, face masks.
The school board vote was for an addendum that was added to the Aug. 23 meeting agenda during the adoption of the agenda portion of the meeting. The addendum, under “Miscellaneous,” didn’t specify masks: “Recommended action: Approve the revision No. 1 of the NASD health and safety plan effective Wednesday, Aug. 25. Since the plan may be subject to further revision as required by changing circumstances within the community and based on the most recent commonwealth orders and guidance and guidance/recommendations of local health providers, the superintendent of schools is hereby authorized to make changes to the plan as necessary and thereafter submit a revised plan for review and approval by the school board. The plan and changes to the plan will be placed on the district website and communicated to parents/guardians.”
School board President David Gogel read the addendum, then added, “Face coverings shall be required in all buildings and at all events.”
Kovalchik said the policy would be on the NASD website and would be communicated to parents and guardians.
Kovalchik expressed concern about a shortage of bus drivers for the 2021-22 school year.
“We are having an extremely difficult time securing bus drivers,” Kovalchik said. “I’m very concerned that we will be able to make our runs. We will double-up runs.
“I have a feeling that the situation is going to get worse before it gets better, so if you know anyone who wants to apply, have them go to our website,” Kovalchik said.
The last-minute face mask policy addendum to the Aug. 23 school board agenda was criticized by residents at the meeting.
After the Aug. 23 meeting, Kovalchik explained the reason for the face mask policy change.
“What transpired for the last few days was that five positive cases of staff and students were reported,” Kovalchik said. “The board received this information. Based on this information, the high (Northampton) County numbers, the positive number of cases in the district, the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics, [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], state health department and our local health authorities (St. Luke’s University Health Network), the board made the decision to add this to our agenda,” Kovalchik said.
For NASD parents who don’t want their children to wear face masks, the Northampton Cyber Academy is available.
Also, NASD Assistant Superintendent Dr. Michelle Schoeneberger said at the Aug. 23 meeting that 120 students have signed up for eLearning in the district.
“Our classroom teachers will be livestreaming their instructions. Students could livestream from home,” Schoeneberger said. “This allows for an eLearning program without taking away staff members.”
The deadline for parents to register students for eLearning is noon Aug. 27.
Prior to the school board vote on the face mask requirement, one parent after another - 16 in all - stepped up to the podium to address the NASD mask mandate.
Kim Bretzik, of Moore Township, asked, “How did you reach that decision?”
“The reason why we went to face coverings is for the safety of our children and administration,” Gogel said.
There were shouts from the audience, critical of Gogel’s comment.
“This is going to be an orderly meeting,” Gogel said, adding, “If it’s not, we will take other actions.”
Bretzik also asked, “How long do you continue the mask mandate?”
Gogel responded, “We expect it to last until Oct. 1, and then the board will decide on what action to take.”
Jerry Bretzik, of Moore Township, husband of Kim Bretzik, asked, “What data are you seeing? The mask that’s on your face is a dirty stinking diaper.”
Director Chuck Frantz asked, “What about the child that’s in school and then infects her family?”
At that point, shouting erupted from the audience.
“Shut up,” Frantz said.
“Are you vaccinated?” Jerry Bretzik asked Frantz.
“Yes,” Frantz replied.
Kristin Lorah Soldridge, of Lehigh Township, asked, “Who’s going to pay my salary? I work from home. Who’s going to pay my salary if I have to teach my kids?”
Mike DeRosa, of East Allen Township, said, “I would like to know the statute that allows you to mandate these masks.”
NASD Solicitor Atty. C. Steven Miller answered, “It’s in the Pennsylvania School Code. It’s a very general statement. The authority is in the school code.”
Mandy Housenick, of Northampton, said, “I gave you information two weeks ago (at the Aug. 9 NASD school board meeting). Did any of you read it?”
Director James Chuss replied, “I did read the information. We read what you gave us. We saw conflicting information.”
Toward the end of 30-plus-minute public comment portion of the meeting concerning face masks, Jerry Bretzik began shouting from the audience.
“Send him out. I’ve had enough,” Gogel said.
Jerry Bretzik was escorted from the cafeteria by two NASD police officers.
One person spoke in favor of the NASD mask mandate.
In his Aug. 5 video chat on YouTube, Kovalchik said, “We’re strongly recommending those of you who want their child to wear a face covering to do so. You can come to school, wear a face covering, and the staff and the administration will follow through on that and monitor that and do what we have to do in regards to ensuring that that’s occurring for those of you that want that to occur.
“For those of you who don’t believe in the face-covering aspect, that is your choice not to wear the face mask for your child.
“So, we’re not mandating it as of today, Aug. 5. We strongly recommend it, but we’re not requiring it at this time. And that is what the CDC and the Department of Health is doing. They’re strongly recommending it, and so are we,” he said.
Kovalchik was expected to have posted a new YouTube video chat this week.
In the Aug. 5 video chat, Kovalchik continued, “We’re going to continue to monitor. We’re going to continue to update you in regards to cases, if we have any. We’re not going to be sending out letters, like we did last year, but we’re going to have a dashboard on our website that’s going to explain all this.
“When we do come back to school and we do have cases, which I’m sure is going to happen, we may have to go into the quarantine aspect of things like we did last year.
“We’re going to stay strong on this. We’re going to continue to work together and try to get our kids back here and have a quality educational experience five days a week. That is the ultimate goal. To have our students in the buildings five days a week and try to get back to as much as normal as possible,” he said.
In the Aug. 5 video, Kovalchik updated the NASD health and safety plan.
“We’re very comfortable with keeping desks 3 to 4 feet part, especially in our K-5 classrooms, Kovalchik said. “In our middle school and high school, we’re pretty sure that the desks can be 3 feet apart, which is important for our social distancing aspect.”
There will be “staggered hallways” so that students and faculty aren’t in the hallway at the same time, Kovalchik said. There will be staggered arrival and dismissal times.
There will be covering of food, Plexiglas placement and a cashless system. A lunch period will be added at Northampton Area Middle School and elementary schools. Students will sit 3 to 4 feet apart.
“Face coverings are required on public transportation, which means our school buses. We’re going to follow that requirement.”
Kovalchik announced at the Aug. 23 meeting concerning the school board vacancy, “We have three residents in the Bath, Chapman, Moore area. I will contact them,” Kovalchik said.
The next scheduled school board meeting is 6:30 p.m. Sept. 13 in the cafeteria at Northampton Area Middle School, 1617 Laubach Ave. It’s expected those attending will be required to wear face masks.