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Masks Made Optional in UPSD to Start School Year
Written by Bradley Schlegel, Staff Writer

            In approving an updated health and safety plan for the upcoming school year that does not require students to wear facemasks in the classrooms, the Upper Perkiomen School Board acquiesced to the wishes of a vocal audience. Last week, the members voted to make mask wearing optional for all students, staff and visitors to start the 2021-22 school year.

            The board followed the recommendation issued by the administrators during the Aug. 12 regular meeting, held at the Education Center. According to Superintendent Allyn Roche, they strongly recommended that students wear the masks in class beginning Monday, Aug. 30 due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. But they stopped short of proposing that their implementation be made mandatory.

            Masks or other face coverings will be required for all students utilizing district transportation. School officials are required to follow a federal order issued Feb. 1, according to board President Melanie Cunningham.  "That's out of our hands," she said during the meeting.

            Prior to the unanimous vote, Member Raeann Hofkin delivered the only comment from the members, describing the idea of forcing children to wear masks as "not necessary, illogical, irrational, absurd, nonsensical and dangerous." Participating remotely, she claimed that the school setting remains one of the "safest low-risk environments" for students since most teachers have been vaccinated.

             Hofkin argued that young children, who she claimed do not get severely ill due to the virus, do not readily spread the virus to other students, adults, teachers or "to the home." She concluded by saying that parents should treat their children's health as a "risk management question."

            The comments drew loud applause from the crowd, which seemed heavily anti-mask. Of the more than 20 residents who spoke, none explicitly expressed a preference for a mask requirement. Patricia Stahley, who described herself as a staff member at the 4th & 5th Grade Center, admitted the staff is "not thrilled about the masks." However, Stahley claimed the situation at the school during the last school year was not as bad as people portrayed it.

            A majority of the residents told the board that it should vote to make mask wearing for students optional. More than one parent threatened to pull their children from school if the masks were made mandatory.

            Prior to the vote, Laura Bidwell, a Pennsburg resident, argued that health is one of those issues that should not be discussed in public. She then told the members they needed to vote to make masks voluntary as payback to her, and the entire community, for supporting them at the polls.  "Give us back our power," Bidwell said. "Let us, the parents, make the choice."

            Jeremy Fischer, a Marlborough resident, told the board that its hand washing requirements were excessive. He also described that regimen, and a requirement to wear face masks, as an unnecessary indoctrination.

            "Leave my kids' skin alone," said Fischer, who also expressed his opposition to contact tracing.

            Sarah Rau compared a mask mandate with imposing one's beliefs on another. The Hereford resident, who identified herself as a science teacher, argued that a mask mandate would damage the psychological health of children in the community. She told the members that kids who choose not to wear masks should not be stigmatized.

            An Upper Hanover resident expressed his suspicion that those board members wearing facemasks during the meeting were unsympathetic to the cause of opposing a mandate. Michael Lehman said he feared their minds were already made up.

            "Looking at the school board here, I'm not sure if I'm seeing friend or foe," Lehman said. "I haven't seen this many masks [among the board] since last year, when mask mandates were issued."

            Lehman said his two children would not return to the school system if they are required to wear a mask. He claimed, without citing any specific evidence, that the science does not support the benefits of wearing them.

            "We will not allow our children to wear masks," Lehman said. "Don't give into this." He added that the face coverings "instill fear in children and makes them feel like something is wrong all the time."

            Administrators likely won't consider changing their recommendation on the issue until after the school year starts. Roche told the members that new guidance could be considered during the Sept. 9 regular meeting, based on the case situation.

            Positivity rates throughout the Montgomery County portion of the district spiked in July. According to a presentation from Roche and Assistant Superintendent Andrea Farina, the rate jumped from 0.0 percent for the week ending July 1 to 3.2 percent one week later. Over the following five weeks, that number increased steadily (0.4 percent, 1.9 percent, 3.2 percent, 4.7 percent and 4.9 percent).

            As of Aug. 5, the district currently falls in the moderate category, the second lowest of four designations identified as part of new COVID-19 guidance for mitigation provided by the Montgomery County Office of Public Health.

            After the meeting, Farina said administrators might consider altering their mask mandate proposal if the case numbers and rates push the district into the Substantial category. One parent registered his preemptive opposition to that notion during the meeting.

            "Even if the cases change, I don't think our choice as parents should change," Fischer said.






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