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Bermudian Springs approves mask exemptions

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One day before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out the statewide mask mandate imposed by Pennsylvania’s acting health secretary, the Bermudian Springs School Board approved a mask exemption form. According to Superintendent Shane Hotchkiss, the form will remain on file for students even with the current mandate no longer in effect.

The board approved the form with an 8-1 vote during a building and grounds meeting on Thursday evening. Board Vice President Matthew Nelson had the sole opposing vote due to concerns about liability.

“A lot of other school districts clearly have gone down this path, and I have no idea what’s going to happen with them,” Nelson said. “Maybe nothing will happen with them, but that’s a gamble with public money. It’s not our money. So they’re going to take a chance that could jeopardize everything we do at Bermudian by taking that chance. So it seems to me that instead of marginalizing all of the hard work that everybody at our district has put in, we’re close to the end.”

Board member Jennifer Goldhahn said she was concerned parents could file a class action lawsuit against the district or that parents would pull students from the district. Board member Travis Mathna agreed that parents might sue, adding that he was a parent who had withdrawn his student due to the mask mandate.

Superintendent Shane Hotchkiss stressed that the form was for an “exception,” not an “exemption.”

The form asked parents to agree to several statements:

  • I confirm that wearing a face covering would either cause a medical condition or exacerbate an existing one, including respiratory issues that impede breathing, a mental health condition, or disability.
  • I confirm that my child has exhausted all other alternatives to a face covering, including the use of a face shield. I confirm that my child and I understand there may be an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19.
  • I understand that the district may ask for additional documentation to confirm my child’s exemption.
  • I understand this request may trigger a child-find obligation and would require the district to complete a team evaluation under Section 504. If this is determined, I will be provided with information about the process and a copy of my parental rights. If my child has an IEP or 504 plan, this request may require the IEP team or Section 504 team to reconvene to make appropriate revisions.

Hotchkiss said gaining access to an exemption would be simple.

“Here’s what I want everybody to walk away with an understanding: you have to check the boxes that you confirm that you’ve read (and) that you agree with the statements,” Hotchkiss said. “That’s it: name, check, sign, date, and turn into your child’s office.”

Hotchkiss said he modified it based on what other nearby districts used and also ran the form by the district solicitor before presenting it to the board.

Some other districts make parents or guardians agree that their child will quarantine if they were exposed to someone with COVID-19 while not wearing a mask. Hotchkiss said the form the board approved means that Bermudian Springs will not.

“Here you have a choice to quarantine, and these places that have that exception, that’s not a choice,” Hotchkiss said. “That’s part of what their agreement is.”

Hotchkiss said parents or guardians could print and return the form to the office immediately.

The form only covers children, not adults, according to Hotchkiss. He said nearby districts also only have forms designed for students.

With the statewide mask mandate being thrown out, the district reverted to its health and safety plan, which has a mask-optional policy. The students’ forms could potentially be applied in the future.

“But (the exemption forms will) still be on file, similar to the 504s,” Hotchkiss said.

The board went into an executive session before adjourning.

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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.

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