The State College Area School Board on Monday night voted 7-2 to approve a 2021-22 health and safety plan that will, at least at the start of the school year, require students who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 to wear masks while indoors.
Board members Scott Fozard and Laurel Zydney voted no. Zydney said her vote was not about the plan itself, but rather the process, adding that she wanted a longer interval between discussion and a final vote.
Though the meeting was frequently interrupted by jeers from a group of attendees who opposed masking for unvaccinated students, sentiments among those who spoke during public comment was a near even split. Of the 31 people who spoke, 16 were against the plan and 15 were in favor of it or wanted the board to follow a recent American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation for universal masking in pre-K through 12.
In consultation with the district’s health and safety team, district administrators recommended following current Centers for Disease Control guidance on masking in schools “because of the uncertainty of bringing back large groups of students (98% of the student body) into schools at three feet of distance,” Superintendent Bob O’Donnell and Director of Student Services Jeanne Knouse wrote in a memo.
That, however, could change based on local and district conditions surrounding the pandemic, with the ultimate goal of making masks optional for all students districtwide, regardless of vaccination status, O’Donnell and Knouse wrote.
The board’s approval authorizes district administration, in consultation with the health and safety team to revise the plan with less or more restrictive protocols, depending on how conditions change.
Under the plan, masks are optional indoors for students who have submitted proof of vaccination. Masks are mandatory indoors for students who are not vaccinated. They also are required for all students and bus drivers, regardless of vaccination status, during district transport.
Masks are optional with no physical distance requirements for all students outdoors.
Other precautions include a minimum of three feet physical distancing in classrooms, contact tracing to be conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Health in collaboration with district nurses, and requiring anyone who shows COVID-19 symptoms to stay home.
Physical distance will be maximized “as much as possible” during lunch, including use of additional spaces such as gyms or outdoor seating. Those who are vaccinated do not need to distance while eating.
Protocols also will be in place for airflow, emphasizing healthy hygiene practices and sanitization.
The district also will continue to work with medical providers to support access for students and families to receive a vaccine. COVID-19 vaccines currently are authorized for ages 12 and older.
“I know everyone is tired. Unfortunately it’s not over,” Dr. Joy Drass, a Geisinger pediatrician and member of the health safety team said. “We absolutely want to get kids back in school and so the decisions that are made need to always have the priority of keeping kids in school and keeping schools open.”
Matt Ferrari, an epidemiologist and director of Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, said that with more students back in school this year, the risk is higher. In addition to personal safety for those who may be exposed to the virus, he said the recommendations also seek to reduce the impact of contact tracing, noting that quarantining of contacts causes students to be out of school.
“The masking recommendations going forward for this coming year, given the current level of risk, is in part to minimize that secondary effect that keeps those kids out of school and keeps them out of in-person educational experience,” he said.
While most cases in children are mild, Drass said “the complication rate is not zero. The mortality rate is not zero. As a pediatrician, any kid who dies of a at this point preventable illness in most cases is one too many.”
At the same time, she said, being in school is vital not only for academic reasons, but for social and mental health reasons as well, so it’s important that in-person attendance is as widely available as possible
“I feel really, really strongly that schools need to be open every day and we need to do it in a way that’s safe for all the students to come,” Drass said. “In a lot of ways, I feel like the kids are paying a price for adults not being responsible enough in terms of COVID.”
Board Vice President Amy Bader said the health and safety team had input not only from physicians and epidemiologists, but also mental health counselors, school nurses, administrators and other district personnel.
She added that American schools have long had a public health responsibility, such as requiring vaccinations, providing physical and dental exams and connecting families with state health insurance coverage for kids.
“We keep saying health and safety, and certainly that is our goal, the health and safety of our students. But what we’re talking about is the public health needs of our community, and public health means the whole public,” Bader said. “…Schools have been integral to public health for decades. We continue to play that role for both the health of our students and the health of our entire community.”
Members of the public who spoke in favor of the plan called it a still necessary precaution. Some advocated for universal masking to protect the most vulnerable and to not single out students.
Parent Jamie Miller said her daughter has had to attend school remotely on the advice of her doctor because of her high risk to the virus.
“I am heartbroken that there are not more people in the district that are willing to do more to protect the most vulnerable in our society,” she said.
Those against mandatory masking for unvaccinated students called it discriminatory and said it would lead to bullying and ridicule.
Michelle Young, a Ferguson Township mother and school board candidate, said she is not opposed to vaccinations but that the board was overstepping its bounds by venturing into personal medical decisions, calling it “an attempt to dehumanize,” unvaccinated students.
“When district policy is made to incentivize vaccination and make it harder for the unvaccinated to stay unvaccinated, the district is overstepping its responsibilities for student safety and are now participating in partisan public policy by rewarding vaccination and punishing those who have made medical decisions not aligned with what the district wants,” Young said. “I am not anti-vaccine. I am anti-segregation and anti-discrimination.”
She said she does not believe masks should be required because of the low risk to students, but questioned why, if the board was focused on “no-risk safety,” it didn’t implement universal masking.
One anti-mask speaker told the board to expect a lawsuit. Another invoked the Nuremberg Code. Another claimed mandatory masking for unvaccinated individuals is “discrimination that has not been seen since the Nazis in Germany considered Jews and other groups undesirable and forced them to wear armbands during World War II.”
Peter Buck, a College Township father and school board candidate, spoke in favor of the health and safety plan and excoriated those who would compare it to human rights atrocities, including the Holocaust.
He called them an “ill-informed minority” who should take their case to federal court if they believe they have been subjected to human rights violations.
“More disturbingly, the comparisons between wearing a mask to Jews wearing a Star of David during the Third Reich are full of falsehoods and are a morally repellent appropriation of the victims of the Final Solution,” Buck said. “You have been free to go to restaurants, sporting events and movies, attend graduations, fly on airplanes, send your kids to school to learn in person, play summer sports, swim at the pool, marry who you wish and vote. You are not victims of genocide.”
School districts are required to approve a health and safety plan and submit it to the Pennsylvania Department of Education by July 30. The plan will go into effect on Aug. 16.
Since last August, SCASD has had 195 COVID-19 cases among students attending in person and 109 among regularly scheduled employees.