The Chancellor Center in Newtown Borough houses the administrative offices of the Council Rock School District.

COUNCIL ROCK >> For at least the first six days of the new school year, masks will be optional in the Council Rock School District.

The school board voted 8 to 1 during the early morning hours of Friday, August 27 to update its current health and safety plan to allow notification of the Bucks County Department of Health and parents when a positive case is reported and to reinstitute the district’s COVID 19 dashboard.

The board, however, didn’t change the district’s optional mask choice approved last spring, which will remain in place for the first six days of the school year. Instead, the board plans to circle back to the issue at its next public meeting on Sept. 9 to craft targeted and temporary masking measures in an attempted compromise between mandatory and optional masking.

“Council Rock has been a leader in putting kids back to school in a safe manner,” said board President Ed Salamon. “This targeted approach is going to address an issue when there’s an issue. When there’s not an issue, there’s not an issue. Some may not like it, but as a parent I don’t have a problem with my kid becoming part of the solution. What makes me feel good is there’s an end. Masks will come off. Mandating it, there is no end out there.”

The motion came around midnight following several hours of public comment on the issue of masking and an extensive round of board comment where each member weighed in on the issue.

Board member Kristin Marcell, who has been a swing vote on masking, proposed the compromise suggesting forging ahead with the current plan for the start of school and then considering an amendment to the district’s health and safety plan at its Sept. 9 meeting that would implement targeted, temporary masking measures when certain criteria is met.

“Based on the fact that our federal, state and local government are recommending not mandating masks I believe the board should do the same - strongly recommending, not mandating,” she said. “However, I believe we need to enhance our current health and safety plan and our COVID mitigation measures. 

“I don’t mind masks, but I believe they should be targeted and temporary so we can manage the situation for the long term,” she said. “We can talk about, as a board, if there are specific metrics for masks to come on and off, whether that is based on what’s going on within the boundaries of the school district or within a school. I would like to hear from the board about that and talk about it. I’m happy to have that conversation in two weeks.

“But tonight is not the end,” said Marcell. “I would rather manage and move forward instead of applying a one size fits all for a year.”

Board member Joseph Hidalgo said he would be open to amending the plan to include mandatory reporting of cases and some form of targeted, temporary mitigation measures. “I believe that is something I can work with - masks optional, but mandated when a case presents itself that you should do that.”

Board member Dr. Michael Thorwart said he also believes there are temporary, targeted mitigation measures that can be taken, noting that there are other districts in Pennsylvania doing similar things.

“With that said, I’ve seen a lot of credentialism among people - ‘Trust the experts. I’m a this. I’m a that.’ The only thing I will claim expertise on and supreme expertise on are my kids. I am the ultimate authority of my children. I know them best,” he said. “So I get to decide what’s best for my kids. 

“With that, like Ms. Marcell, I’m not convinced that masks are the right thing. And I’m not convinced I have the moral authority to mandate for other children. I will support a mask optional plan ... I can’t morally and I don’t think I can legally mandate masks. If it were a legal thing the state would have done it already.”

Board member Mark Byelich agreed with Thorwart, voicing strong uncertainty over whether the school board even has the legal authority to mandate masks, but said he’s not opposed to temporary mitigation measures.

“I will not vote for a health and safety plan that mandates masks. I don’t think we have the authority and it is up to the parents,” he said. “The kids, the parents, the staff should have the option of doing what’s best for them. I am fine with reverting back to what we have on the books until we come up with a plan that’s very close to the targeted temporary mitigation that Dr. Damsker himself recommended a short time ago. If things get bad we can always shift, but I do not want to do universal masking.”

Board member Andy Block reminded his colleagues that there is a new COVID variant circulating through the nation and infection rates that had been historically low in the area are accelerating.

“What that means, I don’t know. I’m not a medical professional. But we do have a job to do, which includes keeping our kids and our staff safe in the buildings,” said Block. “The vast majority of federal, state and most recently our local health agency are suggesting masks should be mandatory. And personally speaking, every single medical professional that I have talked to are suggesting mandatory masks are the best way to keep kids in school. And I’m proud of what we did last year because school was one of the safest places to be if we do it right.”

If temporary, targeted mitigation measures are put forward, Block said the board will have to be very clear where it will be happening, whether on the district, school, classroom or grade level.

“The things I get scared about are kids being out of school,” he said. “An infection without masks can put a lot of kids out of school real quick and without a virtual option we are going to be in a lot of trouble,” said Block. “I’m also worried about what we’re doing in the elementary schools where the kids don’t have the choice of being vaccinated.” 

Block added that if coming up with targeted mitigation strategies is the will of the majority, “let’s get to work fast” and come up with those strategies. 

“Whatever the will of the majority is, I will follow,” said Block. “Once that decision is made, we have to do the best job that we can implementing whatever that is to keep the community, our staff and our students safe.”

Board member Denise Brooks, who voted against the motion, struggled with finding a compromise with the majority of the board.

“To me, the compromise is, ‘Let’s mask our unvaccinated students at the elementary level,’” she said. “If compromise is just some of the minimal things we can agree on, that’s fine. But if we stick to a firm plan, to me that feels reckless.”

Brooks voted for masks optional last spring for the beginning of the school year “because all the indicators for COVID were pointing in the right direction. I have been consistent from the start in my approach and said the plan should respond to local condition. Unfortunately those positive signs are gone,” she said. “Bucks County is now in high transmission. While I voted for masks optional, I no longer stand by that vote. I support the mandatory mask plan.

“With the Delta variant, exposure grows exponentially than the virus we were following last year. They used to say that kids weren’t significantly impacted by COVID. Now we know that’s not true. More and more children are being diagnosed with COVID and hospitalizations are rising. I want to be proactive, not reactive. We have the benefit of looking at school districts across the country which opened weeks ago. We can see what happens when mitigation measures like masks are not in place. Delta has led to hyper local outbreaks and schools are closing. 

“We have to work to prevent that fate particularly because we don’t have - virtual and live stream options for all students,” said Brooks. “We don’t have a Plan B to address widespread absences. The mandatory mask plan is our best solution, not only because it will keep the count down, but it will keep more kids in school by minimizing the number of close contacts.”

“The country’s most respected hospitals and health organizations are all in agreement - masks reduce transmission and should be worn indoors to protect the community, particularly the unvaccinated,” said Brooks. “Masks are an important part of COVID management and should not be summarily dismissed by this board ... We should require masks on buses and indoors as the experts tell us. 

“Our best way to move forward is to be clear that we are guided by science and our intent to follow it,” said Brooks. “By using metrics to guide our plans, we don’t have to have a perpetually stressed community thinking that we may change our plans on a whim.”

In related action, the board approved an agreement with the Bucks County Intermediate Unit to provide cyber program services to elementary students who are pre-registered for the program.

The virtual school option is being offered through the IU and Bridges Virtual Education Services, an online learning program in which students remain a pupil of their home district, have access to district support services and retain the opportunity to participate in after-school activities and athletics.

The program is asynchronous, although there will be some options for students to attend synchronous sessions, but they are not required. Students attend school when it’s convenient and when it works with their schedule.

According to a district survey, 423 respondents indicated an interest in the virtual learning option if Council Rock has a mask optional learning environment. Conversely, if masks were required 293 respondents said they’d be likely to register their children. More than 3,100 responded to the survey.

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