DuBOIS — At least 40 parents and residents, the majority unmasked, packed the DuBois Area School Board’s small meeting room at last Thursday’s work session to voice their opposition to the statewide school mask mandate which took effect Sept. 7.
There were a few seats available for the public but not as many as usual because of social distancing requirements, leaving most of the crowd standing closely together around the boardroom and in the hallway for the public comment portion of the meeting, which lasted for more than an hour. One woman yelled out to the administration and board members, asking them why they did not move the meeting to a different location because surely they had to be expecting a lot of residents to attend.
Two School Police Officers and two DuBois City Police officers were also in attendance as a precautionary measure.
Board President Larry Salone told the audience that anyone who wanted to speak would have two minutes, but in some cases, an individual’s time was extended if another person in the room donated their two-minute timeframe to speak.
Jennifer Dambeck, board solicitor from the law firm of Beard Legal Group, asked for everyone’s cooperation and to not be disruptive.
“The public comments section is your opportunity to address the board. It’s not a Q&A session so, again, you may have questions for the board, we may decide to address it, I may decide to address your comments as well,” said Dambeck.
Although the DASD started the school year on Aug. 23 not requiring masks within the school buildings, administrators and board members reversed that decision once Gov. Tom Wolf and the state Department of Health, on Aug. 31, issued an order mandating that all students and staff must wear masks inside school buildings starting Sept. 7. The mandate requires masks for students, staff and visitors inside Pennsylvania school buildings, including all public and private schools, as well as child care centers and early learning centers.
Superintendent Wendy Benton has said “all school entities must comply with and enforce the order per the Pennsylvania Department of Education.”
Citing the order, Benton told the Courier Express “school entities must require all individuals, two years of age and older, to wear face coverings unless the individual has a medical or mental health condition or disability that precludes the wearing of a face covering. In accordance with Section 3 of the order, before an individual is excepted from the order, all alternatives to a face covering, including a face shield, are to be exhausted. It is recommended that any exception be in accordance with eligibility under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or IDEA for such medical or mental health condition or disability. School entities should follow their established processes for determining student eligibility under those laws, including any medical documentation that they would normally require. There are exceptions to the order; however, a parent’s opposition to the order is not one of them.”
Deidre Brown, one of several speakers attending the meeting virtually, said their main goal is to ask the board to reverse their decision to follow the mask mandate.
“This will allow the rights of parents to prevail over their own children,” said Brown. “It’s time that the school be reminded of its proper place in this entire problem. We have great respect for the hard work that is put in by the school board, the school administration and its teachers.”
At the same time, Brown said, “All of the hard work does not negate the authority of the parents. We are the parents and the school works for us. The school needs to answer to us as the parent, not the other way around. The rights of the parents are being ignored and that needs to end now. Some of the actions that we’ve seen take place with local families in the DuBois school district are absolutely astonishing and disgusting. Children are being segregated, mistreated and denied education because their parents elected to not make their child wear a mask at school.”
Brown said just as the parents have the right to sign a form stating their child will not be vaccinated because of medical reasons, religious beliefs or philosophical world or ethical convictions, parents have the same right to sign a form stating that their child will not be wearing a mask for those same reasons.
“We can also report teachers and administrators who have committed discrimination to the Childline and the Department of Education,” said Brown. “Under law, it’s considered child abuse to cause a child undue distress. Our children are undergoing enormous amounts of stress by being discriminated against because of the medical decision by the parent. When we report this, Childline must investigate the report. They will come to the school and pull out a few of the employees for investigation. We can also file multiple complaints to the Department of Education. They will be required to investigate any unethical behavior by any employee in the school district. I’m sure these are things the school doesn’t want to be dealing with but we are prepared to act.”
Brown noted that the power of deciding how a school district operates lies solely within the school district itself.
“The Department of Health does not overpower the authority of the school district,” said Brown. “What are the consequences of defying the mandate? Nothing. I’m sure you’ve been told that violating this could result in citations. Did you know the maximum fine for those are $50? Did you also know that dozens of these citations have been tried in court and not one was found guilty? This is what you fear, a nonexistent $50 citation? How about the fact that our local DA has stated he will not prosecute violations of the mask mandate?”
Brown said that if the district continues to follow an illegitimate mask mandate, there will be consequences from local families, who will be filing proper legal complaints, and many legal repercussions will follow.
“At this time, I’m calling upon the school board to hold a vote at their next meeting, in which every member states whether they are for or against parental choice in regards to the mask mandate,” said Brown.
Kristin Williams was the only person at the meeting expressing an opinion in favor of the students wearing masks to school.
“I do think there’s a lot of parents on the other side of this,” said Williams. “Masks do prevent transmission of not only COVID, but as you can see we had very limited flu last year. There was a lot of COVID. We are in the middle of this Delta surge ... again, masks do prevent harm. There is no study that shows that they do not. Real scientific peer-reviewed studies are out there. People are quoting studies that have been retracted. The information online is not always correct. Please look at your sources. There are more pediatric cases.”
Williams said the district wants to keep the children in school.
“This (mask mandate) is helping keep them there, not quarantining them, not having to send them home, not having to do online school,” said Williams. “They’re going to be able to do sports. I know it’s hard ... but we want to keep our school, our teachers, our employees safe. And only 6 percent of the documented COVID cases, recently in Pennsylvania, are in vaccinated patients — six percent, that means 94 percent of cases are in the unvaccinated patients. So you should consider the vaccine.”
Approximately 20 other individuals spoke out against the mask mandate during the meeting. Some talked about how requiring children to wear a mask is harmful to their physical and/or emotional well being, that making them wear a mask is a form of child abuse, masks are not effective, what efforts are being used to mitigate COVID, the mandate is unconstitutional, and that, ultimately, it should be the parent’s choice.
No comments were made by board members regarding the mask mandate during their work session, where no action can be taken on agenda items. They did, however, go into an executive session after the meeting to discuss legal matters.
After the public comment portion, directors reviewed the agenda for their regular Sept. 23rd meeting to be held at 7 p.m. at the district’s Administrative Center on Liberty Boulevard, DuBois — it is a meeting that many of the audience members vowed they will attend.