Mask Order has turned our world upside down

Mask Order has turned our world upside down
Posted on 09/05/2021

Good evening!  

Last Tuesday, when only 10 percent of school boards in Pennsylvania had approved a 2021-22 Health & Safety Plan with masks required, Pennsylvania’s Acting Secretary of Health issued a masking Order for ALL public and private schools throughout the state.  The mandate is incredibly disruptive to ALL of us.  The Board and I feel your pain and discouragement with the change of events and its implications for our children and schools.  The new mandate includes direct threats of liability and loss of public school employment in Pennsylvania to all public school educators for failing to enforce it.  This threat was made abundantly clear in a statewide superintendents meeting for commissioned officers of the state - superintendents and assistant superintendents.  Additionally, failing to follow the state mandated Order also removes liability protection for school board members relating to COVID issues. Therefore, we will implement the Order with fidelity in QCSD, for both student and adult protection.

Section 3 of the Order provides a list of legal exceptions to the Order, including 3B that states “[i]f 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 a disability.”  The August 31st Order left an immediate impression that parents could easily opt their children out of the mandatory masking order.  After public discussions by other school boards and social media pronouncements, this view is understandable.  However, what may have been viewed as a  loophole in the Order’s language that provided that impression was subsequently closed on Friday.  To provide clarity and so that parents and students know what to expect on Wednesday, linked here is a Protocols for Implementation of Mask Mandate, a Universal Face Covering Order Exemption Request / Consent to Disclose Records form, and a Procedures for Requests for Mask Exemptions chart that describes the process of considering exemption requests that are submitted.  The Protocol document explains how we will address non-compliance.  It is important to note that students must comply with the mask Order until their exception request is reviewed and approved. This process begins Wednesday morning on buses and when schools reopen.  

As we enter year 2 of adapting to and living with COVID mitigation strategies, this topic is emotional, divisive, and splitting our parent community apart.  It has also created a lack of civility in some of the communications personally to me after I shared the information about the Order with the community.  Some of it was down right mean and offensive.  To be sure, I am obligated to follow the law and I am not “a coward” or any of the other expletives I was called for doing so. 

Under the Board’s direction,  Quakertown's planning for the new school year was to reopen schools with mask wearing being optional.  At the direction of the Bucks County Department of Health we were to treat the new variant more like the flu or other communicable disease.  This meant no data collections of positive cases, no seating charts or mandatory seating assignments, with Q-Flex as the only virtual instructional model available for students.  The Board directed that the Administration may not require masking of our employees.  Masking would be a personal choice for all.  

The Quakertown School Board initially approved its 2021-22 Health & Safety Plan plan on August 12th and reaffirmed the plan that made masking optional with a split 4-4 vote on August 26th.  At the August 26th meeting the Board made masks optional on school buses, too.   In between the initial and affirmation votes, the Bucks County Department of Health did a 180 degree turn by recommending Bucks County school districts follow CDC and state Department of Health guidance.  Most every superintendent in Bucks County made the recommendation to follow these guidelines.  Many of the districts did as well!  Then five days later, after the August 26th Board meeting, at a press conference hosted by Governor Wolf, the Acting Secretary of Health announced the new mandate through her Order.  It turned our world upside down.

Where are we today with the COVID variant, the masking Order, consequences for not following the mandate by the Board and educators, and virtual options for students and staff being quarantined? 

The COVID variant in Quakertown.  It is safe to assume that the Delta COVID variant is being carried by somebody in every school.  This past week was the highest positive COVID case count since we reopened schools a year ago.  There is at least one reported case of COVID and student in quarantine in every school, except the Sixth Grade Center.  Last week, there were 40 students and six staff members testing positive for COVID.  On Friday, an entire school bus of 50 students from Richland Elementary School were placed in quarantine by the Bucks County Department of Health after seven students on the bus tested positive.  Without a contact tracing system in place at the County level and with optional masking, along with the lack of mandatory seating charts and seat assignments to make “close contact” determinations, we have more than 16 percent - one out of six students - in Richland ES on quarantine.  This is unacceptable.  They need to be in the classroom. If they were masked, most of them would be.

In regards to the state masking Order.  Last week, after the Governor’s press conference, I recommended several dates to the School Board to conduct a special public Board meeting.  It was my intent for the public to have input and the Board to discuss, then decide Quakertown’s next steps prior to reopening schools after the extended Labor Day weekend.  Due to scheduling conflicts, there will be no meeting until Thursday, September 9th.  Via email, I informed the Board that the school district would reopen schools on Wednesday, September 8 following the state Order.  We will then follow the decisions they make Thursday night, as long as they are legally compliant with the Order.  

In regards to virtual options.   Part of the Board’s direction to return to “normal” school this year was returning to a regular length school day and eliminating the virtual option that existed last year to allow students to seamlessly move in and out of live instruction as needed.  We do not currently have that option available, nor has PDE approved a virtual option for days/ hours/attendance for this year.  We will be discussing this as an administrative team and with the Board to determine what we may be able to do for students testing positive or who are close contacts to avoid them missing so many days of instruction.

To wrap up, while the Board and I are sensitive to the different perspectives on this Order, we will implement the mandate with fidelity to the best of our ability.  I understand that many in our community disagree with this Order.  Last week, I was in most of our schools.  Depending on the building level, there was a vast difference in how many students and faculty wore a mask. For example, at the high school, I was one of the very few wearing a mask. So, I fully understand that many of you do not want your child to wear a mask while inside school.  However, I respectfully request that this disagreement not be played out at our bus stops or school buildings.  Our bus drivers, teachers, and principals did not establish this Order, nor did I.  But all of us are legally obligated to follow it.  Please allow them to keep their focus on driving,  teaching and learning, and leading. We have an awesome academic program in Quakertown.  Please let us stay focused on it. 

Most respectfully,

Bill Harner

Superintendent, QCSD

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