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Superintendents speak on state’s mask policy

As school districts work to formulate a health and safety plan in order to facilitate the safe opening of schools for fall, the state’s Department of Health issued an update on guidelines on students wearing masks while in school.

The update stated that anyone in schools, including public, private and parochial schools, as well as career and technical centers and any other educational setting would have to wear a face covering. It applies to children two years of age and older.

When asked if this latest development was expected, Dr. Mark Stamm, superintendent at the South Williamsport Area School District, said, “Was I expecting it? It was one of those things that you had a feeling that it was coming.”

Alisia McNamee, principal at St. John Neumann Regional Academy, where they are also working on their health and safety plan, concurred with Stamm.

“Personally, yes, I did think that may have been a stipulation, so I was somewhat anticipating that. But it changes so quickly each day and you know it could change by the time we come back to school,” McNamee said.

Dr. Timothy S. Bowers, superintendent at the Williamsport Area School District, said that the district’s health and safety plan will include anything that is state-mandated, referring to the recent updates from the Department of Health guidelines on face coverings.

The new guidelines do allow for students to remove face coverings if they are eating or drinking when spaced six feet apart, seated at desks or work spaces at least six feet apart of engaged in any activity where they can be six feet apart.

Students with medical conditions can be exempt from wearing the face covering according to the Department of Health.

By law, Stamm noted, the district cannot force someone to reveal what medical condition exists that allows a student to not wear a face covering. Bowers agreed.

“We’re not allowed to ask. Individuals do not have to provide any documentation. They just have to state they are unable to wear a mask. Someone’s assertion that they are unable is sufficient,” Stamm said.

He suggested that the district might want to consider asking parent to send a note saying that, because of a condition, their child cannot wear a face mask.

“I think that is a very minimal request of a parent,” he said.

“They don’t have to write a doctor’s note. They don’t have to tell us what it is,” he added.

McNamee stressed that students would not be wearing the masks continually throughout the school day.

“They will wear them into the building. They will wear them until they’re seated and everybody is in place, she said.

“We train our students for all differing types of things in the world. Unfortunately this is what we are dealing with at this time. I think it is realistic just for when we are moving. Obviously they will not have them on all day long,” McNamee said.

“There will be a challenge, but I just think if it’s addressed appropriately, introduced appropriately, how we’re going to handle it, what that’s going to look like, knowing that it’s temporary until they get to their places and get distanced,” she stated.

“We know that it will be challenging,” said Bowers.

Stamm said that the issue with face coverings is really about two different questions. Does he feel that it’s realistic to have everyone where face coverings during the schoolday?

“From an educational standpoint, no,” he said, adding, “from a health standpoint, I understand.”

“If the face covering’s role is to protect the health of the community, then, sure. Why would you stand opposed to that,” he asked.

For a teacher in front of the class, it can create difficulties.

“When I try to put a face covering on and try to teach, it’s almost impossible,” he said. “When you try to interact with kids, so much of how we interact with people is just facial expressions, their reactions.”

“If you’re a teacher in front of a classroom, you’re looking at kids for signs of confusion, daydreaming and drifting on their face. You take a lot of instructional cues just based on body language. You cover that up it makes it so much harder,” he said.

McNamee noted that because St. John Neumann has a smaller number of students, that they will be able to supply students with masks throughout the school year.

“We are going to provide them and have them available as needed,” she said, adding that even now anyone enter their buildings must have a face covering.

Students in Williamsport Area School District schools will also be provided with masks to wear.

For students in the South Williamsport schools, a face covering will just be another educational resource they would be required to have at the start of the school year, according to Stamm.

“My initial thought is that we ask students and families to supply a lot of educational resources, whether it’s notebooks or pencils, crayons. In this case it’s going to be a face mask as one of their educational resources,” he said.

Both administrators agree that the situation is fluid as districts strive to create a plan for students to safely return to school.

“I think what is most difficult, although we’re meeting with pandemic teams and we have all our stakeholders represented and we’re doing everything to write a plan today, and I think all the superintendents are in agreement, we do not believe this will be the reality we will be dealing with in six weeks,” Stamm said.

“So, it’s hard. We’re trying to get information together, get it in the hands of parents to show them the plan. But, just as we’re seeing in the states on the East Coast and in the South, it’s a rapidly changing situation. We’re trying to create plans in a very fluid environment that’s unpredictable,” he added.

Stamm noted that a final draft of the district’s health and safety plan will be posted to the district’s website nest week for public comment. The school board will vote on the plan at their July 27 meeting.

Other districts were contacted about this issue, but had not responded by the newspaper’s deadline. They include: Williamsport Area, Loyalsock Township, Jersey Shore Area, East Lycoming and Montgomery Area.

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