Five board members were sworn in during the Bermudian Springs School District Board meeting on Monday evening. The board also voted 5-4 to continue to follow the state mask mandate.
Incumbents Matthew Nelson and Daniel Chubb, as well as new board members Mary Kemper, Travis Mathna and Jennifer Goldhahn were sworn in.
Board member Corey Trostle served as the temporary president until Michael Wool was re-elected as the board’s president and Nelson was elected as the vice-president. Wool led the rest of the meeting.
The new board members faced an immediate decision regarding the state’s mask mandate. Some members supported modifying the district’s health and safety plan to allow for optional masks, defying the mandate, while others preferred to follow the state’s directive.
Wool said most of the board’s discussion during its caucus meeting pertained to discontinuing the mask mandate. He said he wasn’t attempting a debate of the efficacy of masks.
Wool said he struggled with the argument that a mandate is not equal to a law, especially as the mandate is being reviewed in court.
“Our authority is derived from the legislature,” Wool said. “The oath that we heard taken tonight was obeying and defending the constitution of the commonwealth and the United States, and the courts will determine if that law is in violation of both constitutions.”
Wool’s comments sparked an outcry which he pushed back against, telling one individual Wool did not interrupt him to correct him during the time he spoke.
“My next question is, what do we do when we’re asked to ignore another law?” Wool asked. “What do we do if we decide, I don’t know, maybe the Sunshine Laws shouldn’t apply to us because they’re inconvenient? We don’t get to pick and choose.”
Wool said he could not ask school administrators to defy the mandate.
Goldhahn protested that the state’s Disease and Prevention Act of 1955 was only supposed to be used for a limited time.
Wool argued that the board needs outside guidance.
“Jen, I hear what you’re saying, except I’m not in a position or have the authority to interpret the law,” Wool said. “That is the scope and domain of the judiciary. The only way the judiciary can override something the legislature passes is constitutional amendment, as we saw happen last spring. So it comes down to playing within our swim lanes, right? We weren’t asked to interpret the law. We weren’t asked to make judgment. That’s what the courts do. That’s the way our form of government was set up.”
He used speed limit signs as an example, saying individuals could choose to defy the law and accept consequences when caught.
The board had to address the audience multiple times to stop interrupting.
Goldhahn said speed limits are unrelated to children or education.
“The whole point I’m trying to make with making masks optional is that we restore parents’ rights to let them decide what is in the best interest of our children,” Goldhahn said. “It is the parents’ right. We raise them. We love them. We instill the values, not the government. I feel there’s been gross overreach and we need to end this.”
Treasurer Ruth Griffie said her background prompts her to follow the mandate although she dislikes masks.
“Do I believe in it? No,” Griffie said. “But I personally have to follow the regulations because my father was a state policeman for 39 years. I was married to city policeman for 32 years. There was regulations and things that we did not like to do but we had to do them.”
Some board members were concerned defying the mandate would open the district or board members to liability, exposing the district to financial risk and risking its programs. It was also pointed out that the discussion about knowingly violating the order would be in the public record and on YouTube and could potentially be used against the district if the vote to defy the mandate passed.
“At the Senate Hearings back in July, the secretary of education, Noe Ortega, said he would not punish us with fees or fines,” Goldhahn said.
However, the Associated Press and other outlets reported in September that when the Tamaqua Area School Board voted to defy the mandate and make masks optional, Ortega warned the district that it could face “fines, civil lawsuits, canceled liability insurance policies and even referral to federal civil rights enforcers,” according to the AP.
Goldhahn said the board should change the exemption process and allow parents to sign a form exempting their child without the school comparing medical records.
“An exemption and a waiver, a simple form signed by a parent and giving the parent a choice and still following the mask mandate for those who do, that still puts the parents’ choice back,” Goldhahn said. “It gives those parents that choice.”
Goldhahn said other districts allow parents to sign the exemption.
“There was no doctor’s signature,” Goldhahn said. “There was no child study team. And there was no intrusion into our child’s private medical records.”
Superintendent Shane Hotchkiss said parents have to allow the district access to records.
“I just wanted to clarify in regards to medical records, we do not look at them,” Hotchkiss said. “A parent always has to give permission, and often it’s permission for the physician to contact us. So that never happens without a parent permission either way in the communication process.”
Goldhahn said it was required on the exemption request document, and Hotchkiss said he would look at it.
According to a communication from PDE on Sept. 10, a parent’s signature is not enough to exempt them from the mandate, and other options must be considered before masks are exempted.
“Any school entity simply permitting a parent’s 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,” PDE states. “Under the Order, and as set forth in PDE’s Answers to FAQs, school entities must require all individuals, two years of age and older, to wear face coverings unless the individual has a medical or mental health condition or disability that precludes the wearing of a face covering. In accordance with Section 3 of the Order, before an individual is excepted from the Order, all alternatives to a face covering, including a face shield, are to be exhausted.”
PDE provided additional guidance in the same post.
“It is recommended that any exception be in accordance with eligibility under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or IDEA for such medical or mental health condition or disability,” PDE continues. “School entities should follow their established processes for determining student eligibility under those laws, including any medical documentation that they would normally require. There are exceptions to the Order; however, a parent’s opposition to the Order is not one of them.”
Secretary Douglas Knight, Griffie, Nelson, Trostle and Wool voted against defying the mandate. Chubb, Kemper, Mathma and Goldhahn voted for it.
The vote to make masks optional did not pass.
The board discussed voting on changing the exemption process for students. Some board members pointed out that other districts in Pennsylvania use forms allowing easier exemptions.
Hotchkiss said he would want the solicitor to review any forms the district might use in order to gauge potential liability. Forms would have to be distributed and returned to the districts.
The board decided to hold a meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday to review a form that would allow parents to exempt their children from the mask mandate. It discussed the possibility of holding it Friday if public notice could not be printed in the local newspaper quickly enough to allow the Thursday meeting.
During the time for public comment, several people protested the mask mandate. One student said he refuses to follow masking rules and studies in isolation and his grades have declined. His father also voiced dissatisfaction with the board and solicitor.
Imari Scarbrough is a freelance journalist. She was a staff newspaper reporter for five years before becoming a freelancer in 2017. She has written on crime, environmental issues, severe weather events, local and regional government and more.
You can visit her website at ImariJournal.com.