Pre-K students arrive for the school day at Phyl's Academy, Wednesday, March 24, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Beginning in September the city's public schools, which currently serve 23,500 three-year-olds, will be adding an additional 16,500 kids to the 3K program.
(Philadelphia) — Community members in two Bucks County school districts are divided over new policies that make coronavirus mask-wearing optional.
A feud between those valuing personal freedom and those prioritizing health concerns has been building for the past year, according to many parents. Now, it’s at boiling point.
The Central Bucks School Board voted on Wednesday evening, during an emergency hearing, to lift its mask mandate. The Council Rock School Board voted to do the same Thursday night.
Masks became optional for students and staff in the school buildings, buses, and during school activities, starting Friday, June 4 for Council Rock; Central Bucks will drop its mandate June 7.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pennsylvania Department of Health still recommend mask wearing in schools to curb the spread of COVID-19.
But the decisions fall in line with advice from Bucks County Health Commissioner Dr. David Damsker, who says his recommendations are based on local data.
“The CDC and I haven’t always agreed,” said Damsker. For instance, the Bucks County Health Dept. said physical distancing requirements in schools could be as few as three feet in June of 2020. The CDC didn’t make that recommendation until March 2021.
Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo
A school crossing guard works, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020, in Mount Lebanon, Pa., in front of a sign reminding people to wear a mask.
Damsker runs the COVID-tracker for Bucks County schools. In the past seven days there were, on average, three cases a day amongst teachers and students, out of 105,000 people. Over the month of May there was a seven-day average of 23 new cases in the entire county, the lowest rates since last summer.
Today is the first day the County has seen zero COVID-19 cases in schools since Damsker can remember.
Damsker says he understands why some parents may still want their kids to wear masks. But, he added, “everyone needs to take a look at what the actual risk is, not what they see on TV,” said Damsker, who noted that coronavirus spread has been lower in schools than compared to the larger community during the pandemic.
For Damsker, this is all about the right to choose: mask or no mask.
“When you order someone to do something or to limit their freedom, it needs to be stopped as soon as that mitigation or control measure is no longer necessary,” he said Damsker. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the last two weeks of school.”
Still, some parents are wondering, why now?
Two petitions were passed around over the past month, one for lifting the mask mandate, and one against.
One Facebook group called “Re-open Bucks County,” publicly released the list of people who opposed making masks optional for students, titling the post: “Remember Their Names.”
One parent on that list declined to be named in this article for fear of further targeting.
“It feels like a hit list. It’s like an intimidation tactic,” said the Council Rock parent. “And that’s why I don’t really want to say my name. But that’s also them winning.”
The parent remains concerned about lifting mask mandates because her child has an underlying heart condition.
John Moore / Getty Images
Wearing a mask and face shield, teacher Elizabeth DeSantis helps a first-grader during reading class in September at Stark Elementary School in Stamford, Conn.
“We are not at herd immunity yet so it still makes no sense. Again with five days left, what is the point of this? It’s so stupid to me,” the parent said. “And dangerous.”
Another Council Rock parent, Kate Jarema, has come to the opposite conclusion about masking, based on her kids’ mental health.
She said her 7th grader and sophomore have suffered this year. Their grades have dropped and their social lives have been depleted.
“Mentally they’re just drained. They can’t stand it. In school, it’s so ridiculous,” said Jarema. “They’re not allowed to talk to one another because of these social distancing rules.”
On Friday, the first day of the change, she noticed a difference.
“My kids were elated this morning. Like actually happy to get on a bus and go to school because they didn’t have to wear a mask,” said Jarema.
Jillian Burns is a parent in a neighboring school district within the county, Palisades School District. She hopes the change comes to her kid’s school.
She says her son Samir — an eight year-old in second grade at Springfield Elementary School — was punished by his teacher after his mask kept slipping down his nose. The teacher gave him a write up which goes in his “permanent file,” said Burns.
“They are little kids. They move around. It’s something they can’t control,” she said.
Her son was coming home with irritated red skin behind his ears and on his face.
“The mask thing has been a nightmare this entire year,” said Burns.
During the Central Bucks “emergency” board hearing Wednesday, Lela Casey was one of the Central Bucks parents who spoke out against the new mask optional mandate. Her daughter Eviann, a fifth grader at Kutz Elementary School, also spoke. Casey is also on the “Remember their Names” list.
Tensions ran high during the testimony and while Eviann testified, mask opponents in the crowd yelled things like “child abuse,” according to Casey, who says this has become a common insult against more cautious parents.
Lela recognizes that COVID-19 rates are low right now, but thinks that might be correlated to the mask-wearing.
At the end of it all, she sees this mask feud eventually dividing students.
“When you tell the kids in a classroom,” said Casey, ‘Your parents get to decide whether you wear masks or not,’ you’re bringing this division into the classroom.”
WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.