The Gettysburg Area School District Board of Directors voted 7-2 last night to direct its solicitor, Robert McQuaide, to take action to potentially challenge the current mask mandate imposed by the PA Department of Health.
The order, released last week by Acting Secretary of Health Alison V. Beam, requires all students to wear face coverings while they are in school, although some exceptions are allowed.
The order came two weeks after all six Adams County school districts, including GASD, began their classes under a health and safety plan in which masks were optional. The Vida Charter School has required masks for all students and staff since the beginning of the school year.
Beam said the need for masks has become necessary as COVID-19 numbers in the state have risen dramatically.
The vote came after the board had spent 45 minutes listening to residents voice their opinions about the mask mandates. The audience in the Junior High School auditorium clapped and cheered the entire evening after hearing speakers, including board members, express points they favored.
The vote was confusing in part because the wording of the motion the board was asked to vote on was substantially different than the one that had been published in the agenda.
The motion printed in the agenda directed the solicitor to “advise on the appropriateness to challenge the Order of the Pennsylvania Department of Health regarding masks, and advise on the best way to proceed.” whereas the motion read at the meeting and which was passed directed the solicitor “to implore a potential lawsuit or whatever he deems appropriate including but not limited to joining an already existing class action lawsuit seeking an injunction on Department of Health and the Governor Wolf current mandate overriding the approval of the district health and safety plan.”
McQuaide said he thought the two motions were similar and that the board was asking his opinion about the possibility of moving forward should the board choose to take action.
Board member Sylvan Hershey said the students had been put into conditions that were “at risk” because appropriate social distancing was not available. I am concerned about the health and well-being of all our students,” he said. “I think masks would certainly be the way to go.”
Pratt said it was important to keep the children in school for their mental health and sometimes for “the very food they eat in a day.”
“I’m uncomfortable bucking this mask mandate that truly has the rule of law behind it,” she said. Pratt also said she thought the motion involved a “non-recognition of authority” which she felt constituted anarchy.
Hassinger said the board was put into an “unattainable position” and that parents had made decisions based on the existing health and safety plan. “The vast majority of the kids came in without a mask,” he said. Hassinger said the existing plan allowed the district to take action if a “cluster” of COVID cases was observed. “Democracy says we can challenge particular mandates that come down,” he said. “Let democracy work.”
It seemed likely the board would act quickly as a hearing on the topic is scheduled at the state level for Sept. 16.
In other business, the board disagreed on the need to review the minutes from prior meetings. Motions to review the minutes from the August 2 board meeting were requested by Pratt but voted down in a vote in which only Pratt and Soliday voted in favor. A third motion to correct minutes was passed, also on a split vote.
The board also discussed and approved a contract to hire new health professionals with Soliday disapproving and approved a plan to upgrade the audio and video systems in the Administration Building Boardroom with Pratt and Soliday voting no.
Board members expressed the need for this update given the current system is over 20 years old. Hassinger said the changes were important to allow transparency. “It’s now time to do a one-time unified update by professionals to accomplish our mission,” said Hershey.
Next regularly-scheduled board meeting is Sept. 20.