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The Chancellor Center in Newtown Borough houses the administrative offices of the Council Rock School District. (BucksLocalNews.com File Photo)

NEWTOWN >> Council Rock on Thursday became the second public school district in the county to make mask-wearing optional for all K to 12 students, staff and visitors.

With just six days remaining in the school year, the school board voted 7 to 1 to lift its mask mandate effective Friday, June 4 at 6 a.m. on buses, in schools and at all after school activities.

The board made the decision after consulting with board solicitor, Robert Cox, on the issue.

Cox told the board that after Bucks County Department of Health Director Dr. David Damsker put the full authority of his office behind the proposition that face coverings can be optional in all situations in Bucks County, “it became a lawful proposition for this board and any other board in Bucks County to consider.

“That recommendation from his office to the entire Bucks County Community is something that the board can rely on in making its decision,” said Cox.

After listening to Cox, board member Michael Thorwart put forward the motion to make masking optional for the balance of the school year.

In making its decision, board members also cited next week’s weather forecast, which is predicting temperatures to reach into the 90s during the final week of school.

Board member Denise Brooks broke with the board citing guidance from the Center for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which continue to call for school masking.

“I appreciate the information from Bucks County, but with anything you don’t make a decision based on the one source of information that you agree with,” said Brooks. “The County decision is in conflict with the CDC, the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the American Academy of Pediatrics. They have not changed their recommendations. 494 districts in the state have not changed their position on that.

“I try very hard to keep my objectivity and to do my due diligence in trying to understand all the things I need to consider when taking a vote. And it’s very hard because there is a lot of divisiveness in the community,” said Brooks. “As a community and a volunteer I have wanted nothing but the very, very best for every staff member and every student.

“I talk to a lot of people. I read everything. I simply disagree for reasons rooted in my research and my experiences. I have received emails begging me, ‘What can I do to keep the masks on for the rest of this year?’ Legally there is still a state order in place. What Dr Damsker has provided is a defensible way to not follow the state order.”

Brooks added that she would not be adverse to separating out the secondary and the elementary levels, requiring masking at the elementary level where children have not yet been vaccinated, but making it optional at the secondary level.

“As always, Mrs Brooks, I find you very persuasive and well thought out,” said Board member Mariann McKee. “I appreciate all my board colleagues in terms of their critical thinking and desire to do what’s best around this issue. We have revisited issues throughout the year and as information and circumstances change we’re revisiting this one and it’s a very different conversation to me then last time we had it because of the advice of our counsel. With Dr. Damsker’s recommendation, I’m much more comfortable in agreeing with this motion.

“Additionally, and practically speaking, the temperatures we are going to be looking at next week are going to be very, very difficult especially in the schools that aren’t air conditioned. Removing masks will alleviate some of that discomfort,” said McKee.

“I spoke to Dr. Damsker today to have him reassure me that the decision I was about to make made sense,” added board President Ed Salamon. “Mrs. McKee stole my thunder. 90 degrees next week. I’m concerned about the elementary kids who may not be vaccinated, but they are the ones we are going to find laying on the recess yard when these temperatures hit.”

Council Rock’s decision came 24 hours after the Central Bucks School District became the first in the county to make face coverings optional, although Council Rock School Board member Joseph Hidalgo said CR was the first to entertain the idea two weeks ago.

“It wasn’t quite there yet,” said Hidalgo. “Some of the hard work we did two weeks ago and of course the improving numbers (in COVID cases) may have helped get to a yes from our local authority, Dr. Damsker. I am so happy he came around and gave the okay allowing this.”

The optional face masking directive will extend to the district’s summer program and into the 2021-22 school year.

Also at the June 3 meeting, the majority of the school board said it would support a recommendation by the administration not to offer a cyber model at the elementary level during the first half of the 2021-22 school year.

The board previously approved a return to school model with elementary students given the option of in person or cyber for the first semester with a return to full in person learning with the second semester.

“The bottom line here is we saw very, very minimal registration numbers for the cyber option that we had been planning to make available,” said Superintendent Dr. Fraser, reporting on the results of a registration form sent out to district parents.

The district had set 15 as a minimum to make the cyber option economically viable.

“We only have one grade level out of the seven that hit that 15 number and only one grade level is in double digits. The others are all seven and below,” said Fraser.

Across all elementary grade levels, 57 registered for the cyber option, according to the administration.

“On a night we are passing a budget and raising taxes we can’t justify it from a taxpayer standpoint,” said Fraser.

While several board members said they’d like more time to hear from the community regarding the change, the majority said they would support the administration’s recommendation.

“I’m pleased to see that people are understanding that what we deliver in Council Rock is best delivered in the classroom with their teachers - in person,” said McKee.

The board also voted unanimously to approve Policy 209, in which members of the Council Rock School District may neither require a student’s vaccination against COVID-19 nor inquire into a student’s COVID-19 vaccination status.

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