Since the mask mandate was lifted on Monday, Dec. 13, tensions in the SYCSD community have risen and so have the COVID-19 cases.
Dating back to the beginning of the pandemic, there has always been an existing mask controversy.
However, when the school board made the decision to revoke the mandate, the controversy intensified as the high school undertook such a drastic change.
Student parent Jeffry Leitch has a doctorate in biomedical sciences and presented his opinion to the school board by way of letter.
J. Leitch began by presenting a graph that demonstrated that COVID rates were relatively in control, according to the school district’s case dashboard, the district’s monitoring tool for students and staff who are positive for COVID or in quarantine.
“[The dashboard] gives us a look of how useful universal masking is in preventing in-school transmission,” J. Leitch said. “…the data indicates [that] the control processes (i.e. masking) adopted by the school board… stabilize the number of positive cases in the school system and generally maintain a low level of cases…”
J. Leitch not only explained his view on the situation, but also created a complex graph to demonstrate the change in case numbers since the mandate no longer enforced students to wear their masks.
“After Dec. 13, there is an uptick in daily positive cases which significantly changes the overall mean [of the graph],” J. Leitch said. “More consecutive points below the mean are observed, indicated by the red points marked with ‘2’ (because the mean is higher than in the universal masking data only)… The process is clearly no longer in control.”
SYCSD parent and scientist Sharon Leitch shared the same perspective in another letter and argued that the mask mandate
was effective and still can be re-implemented.
“…the district was entirely unprepared for the explosion of cases that were inevitable when the mask mandate was lifted,” S. Leitch said. “…what happens when a sick kid can’t even be seen at the hospital because the hospital is so full?”
S. Leitch also touched on how the prices of masks have climbed and how the district could help students who have opted to wear masks.
“I chose to send my kid in a tight fitting KN95 to school,” S. Leitch said. “When I purchased a box of pediatric KN95’s in December, it was $30 for 30 masks. Now they are more than double that cost. If the district is not going to support universal masking, they should supply KN95s for those kids who are doing their part to keep their peers and teachers safe.”
Community member Leanna Feaser spoke at the school board meeting that took place on Nov. 18, 2021.
Feaser presented specific conditions that she thought should be implemented.
“I would encourage that the plan include the ability to change course should things go horribly wrong,” Feaser said.
Feaser also requested that the board allow multiple weeks as well as an advance notice, so that parents could have students vaccinated prior to the mandate’s removal, but insisted that keeping COVID rates low will not only be up to the students.
“The success of unmasking our kids relies almost completely on parents and responsible decisions when their children show signs of illness,” Feaser said. “It’s up to parents to make this work.”
On the other side of the spectrum, the community took a stance against the mandate.
Speaker Bob Betz introduced his point of view to prevent the district body from forcing the masks on students and staff who do not wish to wear them.
“Beneficially, changing the plan back to a mask-optional plan gives those that wish to wear a mask exactly that ability to do so with their free will, so I don’t think anybody is really at risk that wants to wear a mask by letting other people make the choice for themselves,” Betz said.
Betz believed that the board should advance the mask mandate being lifted to prevent the misinterpretation of legality in this situation.
“I would hope that this board would make the decision to make it optional again, potentially making it optional immediately as it’s an unlawful, illegal mandate in the first place,” Betz said.
Public speaker Brad Renihan also commented during the Dec. 2 school board meeting.
“It is now time to let parents and students decide how they will cover and not cover their faces going forward,” said Renihan. “Did we mask kids back in 2018 during a bad Flu season? There are diseases far deadlier than COVD-19… let our kids see other kids’ smiling faces and laughs.”
Renihan also referenced that the pandemic has done more than enough to disrupt normal life.
“We need to start undoing the mental health damage to our kids while we are battling a once in a lifetime pandemic, and, hopefully, this will help in the decline of the fights and the bullying that is going on in the schools,” said Renihan. “I followed up on a school in Mississippi [that went mask-optional], and yes, there was a spike of cases at first, but… it’s been a clear downhill. Please trust the science and the data.”
With the community divided on the issue, students in the high school also take different positions on the mandate.
Three students who choose to mask up as well as three who do not were asked to give feedback anonymously on how they felt about the mandate.
Of the six students interviewed, two freshmen, two juniors, one sophomore and one senior provided perspectives from each grade level.
One response from a junior student choosing to wear a mask said, “I feel like it’s important to wear masks because I do not want to put my friends and family at risk. I don’t want to be a part of the spread. I feel less safe at school now that the mask mandate is gone because our COVID case numbers keep rising and rising…”.
A freshman student choosing not to mask up also shared their perspective.
“I choose not to wear a mask for two reasons: I am vaccinated and feel safe enough not to have to wear one anymore, and in the school setting, we don’t have quarantined lunches, ultimately defeating the argument for masks at all,” the freshman said. “If there is no implementation of quarantined lunches in schools, then the mask mandate is generally unnecessary due to the fact that many more people are in far closer quarters, making it possibly the number one place where disease is able to spread the fastest…”
Students interviewed were also asked to estimate how much of the school population wears their masks following the mandate’s removal.
5 of 6 students guessed that 30 percent or less of the student body wore their masks, with even less of those students wearing them correctly.
The quarantine policy was updated on Nov. 14, stating that the school’s enforced quarantine period will follow that of the CDC which has been reduced.
“If the person with COVID-19 either has no symptoms or has resolved or improving symptoms (including fever) after Day 5 of isolation, the person with COVID-19 may leave their house provided they wear a well-fitting mask when around other people,” the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) explained in their health update for the general population.
According to the DOH, those who test positive must be isolated for five days, unless the concurring symptoms have not improved.
Also it is recommended that if a person is exposed to someone with COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask for 10 days.
As the district continues to update their COVID-19 policy regarding masks and quarantining, the community, students and staff need to have a diligent focus on the constantly evolving policies.