To mask or not to mask, that is the question that faces Delaware Valley school districts as parents on both sides of the politically divisive issue wrangle to keep their children safe and enforce their rights amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
In West Chester and Downingtown, two mothers, Shannon Grady and Beth Ann Rosica, filed petitions in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas seeking the removal of board members who favor mandatory masking policies for staff and students in their districts.
States continue grappling with school mask mandates. In neighboring New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy announced face coverings would no longer be required for students as of March 7.
Grady and Rosica point to a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling in December that said Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration had no legal authority to require masks in schools and child care centers.
The justices didn’t touch upon whether districts could enact such policies. Instead, they focused on the Department of Health’s limited scope of authority to protect public health so long as it didn’t “act by whim or fiat in all matters concerning disease.”
That left the window open for challenges like the ones pursued by Grady and Rosica, who do not have formal legal training.
These two moms are representing themselves and mobilizing parents in other districts to take action against district leaders, saying those officials have caused “permanent and irreparable harm” to students by “fabricating, feigning or intentionally exaggerating or including a medical symptom or disease which results in a potentially harmful medical evaluation or treatment,” according to the petitions.
Those targeted include Downingtown board President LeeAnn Wisdom, Vice President Caryn Ghrayeb and board members Jane Bertone, Joyce Houghton and Audrey Blust, along with West Chester Area board President Sue Tiernan, and board members Joyce Chester, Karen Herman, Kate Shaw and Daryl Durnell.
“They can’t just create policy out of whole cloth. We try to have conversations with them. We speak about the adverse effects. It just falls on deaf ears,” said Grady, whose freshman son cannot attend in-person learning because the district wouldn’t grant him a mask waiver. “These tyrants are going to keep doing it until they’re told they can’t.”
District officials declined to respond to requests for comment.
The effort is playing out at the same time parents in the Perkiomen Valley School District in Montgomery County brought suit in federal court to keep a mandatory masking policy in place after incoming board leaders relaxed the district’s stance to optional in January.
A judge issued an injunction keeping the mandatory masking policy in place for now after the parents argued the district’s decision violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The children have chronic health issues, such as asthma and bronchitis, putting them at higher risk to contract and suffer serious illness or death from the virus that has claimed nearly 6 million people, their parents claimed. The available data, however, show children are at very low risk of serious illness from the virus, with a mortality rate of just 0.08 percent.
The students are vaccinated but haven’t received boosters so the district’s optional masking policy “has the effect of excluding these children from their public institution, or otherwise denying them the opportunity to participate in the services of the school district.”
The district’s 5,100 students returned to in-person instruction in March 2021, with a mandatory masking policy in place for all students except those granted exemptions because of conditions ranging from autism to anxiety.
District Superintendent Barbara Russell recommended that the district maintain the universal masking policy due to a surge in cases from the Omicron variant but the board voted 5-4 to lift the mandate, making it one of two schools in Montgomery County at the time to do so.
It had its first positive Omicron case four days after the new policy was enacted. Russell pushed board members at a Jan. 3 special meeting. to reconsider a more “methodical and thoughtful approach” as the county positivity rate surged to about 20 percent, according to court records.
U.S. District Court Judge Wendy Beetlestone wrote that district leaders “face excruciating choices” trying to keep students and staff safe from the virus while ensuring everyone has equal learning access. She cited a CDC study that found places without uniform mask mandates had double the cases as those enforcing mask mandates.
“The district and the board have a responsibility – which they have undertaken with admirable care and commitment – to grapple with the various and sometimes conflicting interests of many students – those who cannot mask due to a disability, those who are immunocompromised, and those who just want things to get back to ‘the normal we know’ as soon as possible,” she wrote.
The decision did little to soothe angry parents who, at a recent meeting, called for the resignation of board member Tammy Campli because she testified on behalf of the suing students.
Masking will remain a hotly disputed topic until the parents have their day in court, Rosica said.
“I’m not even arguing the science with people. It’s a losing battle. The issue is not whether [masks] work or not. I don’t want my kids masked. That’s how I feel. I’m the mom,” she said.