Motion passes to allow mask-wearing exemption for South Side schools

The South Williamsport School Board passed a motion that will allow parents to sign off on an exemption from the department of health’s mask-wearing order during a crowded public meeting this week.

The motion removes the requirement of exemptions to have a doctor’s signature, a measure many parents took issue with. Now, parents need only sign that their child has medical condition, a mental health condition or a disability that makes it unreasonable for them to wear a mask.

The form is available at https://www.swasd.org/covid19-general-information/.

The Aug. 31 mask mandate order from Department of Health Secretary Alison Beam states exceptions can be granted if it 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 vote followed an hour and a half of public comment and board deliberation, as well as an impromptu executive session to clarify legalese.

Of the eight filled school board seats, Sue Bowman, Diane Cramer, Todd Engle and Steve Shope voted in favor of the motion, while Cathy Bachman, board President Nathan Miller and Steve Rupert opposed it.

When board Vice President Nick Fiorini was roll-called to vote, he stood, placed a sheet of paper before district Superintendent Mark Stamm, and walked out of the room to raucous applause from the more than 80 community members present.

Several minutes later, Miller also left the room.

According to school board Secretary Jamie Mowrey, Fiorini did not officially deliver a vote on the motion. It is unclear what was stated on the printed paper Fiorini placed in front of the superintendent, and it is unclear why Miller left the meeting.

Their departure left Bachman, the school board’s treasurer, next in line to conduct the meeting for the rest of the night.

The state’s masking order went into effect Sept. 7, when Stamm sent a letter to the school community informing them exemptions were able to be made in cases of medical necessity, with proof from a licensed health care provider.

“Please remember that our mission is to create a safe, caring and challenging learning environment for every student, every day,” Stamm wrote at the end of the letter.

Children who already had an existing individualized education program or a 504 service agreement — both measures that provide accommodations for children with disabilities or handicaps — did not need to submit the form; only children with undocumented needs were required to do so for the masking exception under the secretary’s order.

Many parents who spoke at the meeting took issue with the terms of the exception, believing their child should be able to be exempted from the order without a doctor’s signature. Some also said it was difficult to have a doctor approve of the exemption, while others explained their child suffers from undiagnosed mental disorders that make mask-wearing impractical.

Krista Rogers, a district parent, spoke to the board and asked them to oppose the masking mandate.

“I’m not saying don’t wear a mask. I’m saying trust the parents to know and decide what is best for their children.”

Tammy Miller said her opinion about wearing masks in school would be unpopular, as she was one of two to take to the podium.

“I support wearing masks at school,” she said. “Wearing a mask is not infringing on civil liberties.”

Summer Bukeavich, another parent, said her child is enthusiastic to wear masks, and that when other kids see her wearing a mask, they want to wear one too.

“I think our parents have stronger opinions on this than our children do,” she said. “A majority of people here are against the mandate. There’s a lot of people who are not here who are perfectly content with the order. I urge you to not forget about them.”

Lisa Arp, a second grade teacher in the district, said teaching language to students is impractical with face masks.

“I cannot hear them in one-on-one assessments,” Arp said. “They have a severe deficit. The responsibility we are feeling to get them caught up. They need to see my face. They need to hear the pronunciations. They need to see my tongue and teeth to learn phonics.”

Miller said he was hesitant to allow an exemption form that does not require approval from a doctor, and requested the board add some level of doctor’s approval.

“I’m not qualified to make medical decisions; I’m not a doctor,” Miller said.

Meanwhile, Fiorini explained that, while he opposed the order, he wanted to protect the school.

“Any comment I make is in defense of administrators, teachers so they don’t lose their certification. I hate these masks, but I want to protect teachers and the administration to not have repercussions,” Fiorini said. “What everyone is asking us to do here today is putting the school district at risk. I agree and understand, but I don’t feel like the fight is here. It is in Harrisburg to tell them to leave us alone.”

Although Miller insisted on the session remaining civil, many members of the audience heckled the school board and placed responsibility for the order at the board’s feet, despite Stamm’s being legally required to implement the order in the interim before the board could officially meet to vote on how to execute it.

“I appreciate the frustrations, and I appreciate the concerns and differences in opinion,” Stamm said. “It’s been a difficult start to the school year, and your teachers and administrators are doing everything they can.”


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