With surging COVID case numbers forcing Gov. Mifflin School District to move three schools to virtual learning this week, the district has decided to reinstate a mask requirement.
At a special school board meeting Thursday night, the board approved requiring masks be worn by everyone inside school buildings. The new rule goes into effect Tuesday.
The change to the district’s health and safety plan passed by a 7-2 vote, with Andrew Pannafino and Christina Worley voting no.
The board has said it will revisit the topic at each of its meetings moving forward, which take place about once every two weeks. If the COVID situation in Berks County and school district changes, the requirement may be lifted.
Masks were made optional at Gov. Mifflin schools after a statewide mandate requiring them in all school buildings was struck down by the state Supreme Court on Dec. 10.
But a worsening COVID situation in Berks that has impacted the district led officials to reconsider that move.
Mirroring the situation across the county, Gov. Mifflin has seen a spike in cases since the start of the new year. According to the district’s COVID dashboard, there have been 399 cases reported since Jan. 1.
That number represents well over half of the 702 cases reported in the district so far this school year.
The surge in cases has impacted the district’s ability to continue in-person classes. This week three buildings — the high school, middle school and intermediate school — were all temporarily shut down because of staffing issues, with students forced to switch to virtual learning.
Superintendent Bill McKay said earlier this week that on Monday a total of 94 staff members districtwide were absent. That represents about 17% of the district’s workforce.
McKay said 45 of the absences were staff members who tested positive for COVID. Some of the other absences were due to quarantine requirements for staff who had been in close contact with someone who tested positive.
At Thursday’s meeting, McKay said requiring masks inside schools will help the district in two ways.
First, it will help slow the spread of COVID, hopefully stemming the rising tide of case numbers. Second, it will allow the district to adhere to the new, shorter quarantine recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Prior to Thursday’s vote, the district was requiring people who were in close contact with a positive case to quarantine for 10 days. The new CDC guidelines said that people who do not develop symptoms can cut that in half to five days, but should wear a mask when in public for five days following their quarantine.
McKay said the district could not implement the shorter quarantine because it did not have a mask requirement and couldn’t ensure that students and staff wore masks when returning from a five-day quarantine.
With a mask mandate requirement now in place, McKay said, the district can move to the five-day quarantine.
McKay said requiring masks will also decrease the number of students who need to quarantine when a positive case pops up. If both students are masked, an interaction is only considered a close contact if the two are within 3 feet for at least 15 minutes.
Without masks, close contacts are when two people are within 6 feet of each other. That rule still applies for adults even with the mask requirement.
A small group of community members pushed back on the decision to require masks.
Twenty people spoke during a public comment session at Thursday’s meeting, with 16 of them voicing opposition to requiring masks. Those who spoke against masks included two students.
Most cited their children’s dislike for wearing masks, with some claiming wearing a mask has caused depression or made it hard for their children to breathe. Several claimed masks do not protect against COVID, with one woman comparing the situation to clothing not being able to prevent the smell of someone passing gas.
A few spoke about their religion, saying they believed God would protect them from COVID more than a mask. One man, who happened to be wearing glasses, said that God did not design the human body to breathe through a filter.
Several of the speakers lashed out at board members and members of the administration.
One woman accused the district of implementing the mask requirement for financial gain, saying they did so in order to receive federal COVID relief funding. She questioned whether it was being done to fund the building of a planned community center on the district’s Shillington campus.
Others called board members tyrants, claimed exercise and healthy eating does more to prevent COVID than masks, cited a growing concern of student mental health and accused the district of bullying those opposed to wearing masks.
Four members of the audience spoke in favor of requiring masks, including a pair of high school students. And board President James Ulrich said the district had received 29 emails with comments about the issue, with 23 in favor of returning to a mask mandate.
Source: Berkshire mont