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WALKER: Emails Show Central Bucks COVID Closures Work of Teachers’ Union

During the summer of 2020, I was told by numerous people that the PSEA had absolutely no influence over the decision on whether to open schools in Bucks County for the start of the 2020/2021 school year. Two years later and several thousand emails obtained via the Right-to-Know requests, I have learned that was a lie. I have also realized that the people who kept schools closed were either scared of COVID or scared of the PSEA.

That is just the beginning of the story I will tell about why it was so hard to get children back into school in our area. Keep in mind Bucks County had more kids attend in-person education than surrounding counties, thanks to our health director and the parents and board directors who fought to make it happen.

Central Bucks School District is the largest suburban school district in Pennsylvania. Up until July 17, 2020, former Supt. Dr. John Kopicki had been telling parents that school would open for a full five days per week. On July 17 he tried to change the law regarding how children are educated in Pennsylvania. Without board approval, he made the unilateral decision to switch the entire district of 18,000 students to “hybrid” education.

In announcing his decision, Kopicki lied to parents about what the state guidelines actually were.  Then he had district employees incorrectly measure desks from edge to edge rather than from center to center, which is what county health director Dr. David Damsker advocated that would have allowed schools to open normally.

Because of Kopicki, kids could only attend school two days per week. Secondary students weren’t even allowed to eat lunch in school.

Now we know that he kept kids out of school because of pressure from PSEA Mideastern Regional President Bill Senavaitis. Instead of preparing his classrooms for the upcoming school year, Senavaitis went on an unprecedented assault against Damsker, who was giving parents hope that children could have a relatively normal school year.

Senavaitis spent his time writing op-eds bashing our health department and asking Bucks County citizens to tell a board-certified public health doctor to change his health guidance in order to align with what the PSEA wanted–not what was best for children.

From emails, we learned he attacked Bucks County Health Director Damsker with a flurry of personal attacks so repulsive that Bucks County Commissioner Bob Harvie chided him for it. Later, he went as far as calling parents “jerks” in his PSEA newsletter. On August 6, 2020, he got the PSEA state president to send a letter to Bucks County commissioners pressuring them to force Damsker to change his guidance so that kids could be kept out of school. But Damsker never changed his guidance.

Bill Senavaitis left his position as president of the PSEA Mideastern Region when the truth came out. But now that time has passed the PSEA feels it’s safe to promote him again so that he can be in the same position when the next crisis occurs. Is this the type of leadership the PSEA wants to represent its organization? Is this the type of organization politicians want endorsing them?

Now, two years later, we know Damsker was correct about learning loss, distancing, and treating COVID like the flu. Senavaitis was wrong about everything concerning COVID. His op-ed titled “David Damsker’s remarks about 3-foot social distancing in schools are harmful,” is a personal and professional humiliation for him. We need to ask why he is back in the leadership role in the PSEA.

The PSEA under Senavaitis’ leadership advocated for thousands of children to be kept from school—catering to the unions’ agenda, not the children’s. That speaks volumes about the PSEA and should make every citizen and especially parents wonder what type of organization is influencing our district administrators, our school board, and our kids. All the emails and documents backing up my opinions can be found  here.

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DelVal’s Head Start Programs Still Mandate Masks for Young Children

Despite mask mandates virtually gone from most of daily life, children attending Head Start programs in the Delaware Valley will still be required to wear them this upcoming school year.

Six months after CDC guidance ended requiring students to wear masks in schools, the Delaware Valley Journal reached out to all four counties’ Head Start programs, which provide early learning and development for young children in low-income households, to discover if masks would still be required this year. Of the three that responded–Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery–all said the mandate would still be in place.

“At the current time, the Montgomery County (Intermediate Unit) Head Start programs are going to be requiring masks,” Holly Acosta, director of early childhood at the MCIU, told DVJ. That rule, for now, will apply “no matter the community level of transmission,” she said.

Part of this may be out of local counties’ hands. In November 2021, the federal Office of Head Start announced an interim rule that required staff to be vaccinated and established universal masking for all students 2 years old and older.

“Because the health and safety of our children and families remain our top priority,” Delaware County Head Start Director Jennie Prochorenko-Stadelberger said, “the (Delaware Intermediate Unit) Head Start program is still following the Interim Final Rule from the federal Office of Head Start.”

She added the program had its own health and safety plan in place as well and has not heard of any changes to the federal guidance since the rule was announced.

As a federal grant holder, the Bucks County Intermediate Unit must comply with the masking guidelines of the federal office, a spokesperson said.

The federal rules are strict. Children must wear masks indoors unless eating, drinking, napping, or if they have a disability that prevents them from wearing a mask. It also means wearing a mask outdoors for students, due to potential close contact.

However, the BCIU spokesperson added additional guidance from the federal office stating it is not necessary to monitor compliance with the guidelines.

“Accordingly, the Bucks IU will not monitor for compliance with the mask requirement in Bucks IU Head Start and Early Head Start Programs,” the spokesperson said. “This ‘pause’ on monitoring will remain in effect until additional guidance is received.”

If further guidance is delivered that curtails that relaxation of monitoring compliance, those strict rules would be enforced once again.

When it comes to mask mandates for young children, America is an outlier. The World Health Organization does not recommend masks for children under age 5. The European equivalent of the CDC does not recommend it for children under age 12.

Reliable data on the impact of mask mandates on COVID spread are hard to find, but many studies show masking is harmful to the development of young children, weakening the accuracy of social perception. A study from earlier in the pandemic said masks break down verbal and non-verbal communication, and especially hinder emotional connections between students and educators.

Beth Ann Rosica, executive director of Back to School PA, a political PAC started in response to prolonged school closures due to COVID-19, said the current rules are unfair.

“The vast majority of public and private schools, preschools, and daycare facilities across the state of Pennsylvania are not mandating masks for students or staff,” she said. “The children attending Head Start are entitled to the same learning environment as parents who can afford private preschool.”

Rosica said it goes against Head Start’s mission which is to strengthen parent-child relationships and engage families in their child’s development, according to its website.

“In order to strengthen relationships and engage families,” Rosica said, “the program should respect the rights of parents to make these important decisions on behalf of their children.”

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Most in Delaware Valley Give Mask Mandates a Thumbs Down

Plane loads of people rejoiced when they learned a Trump-appointed federal judge struck down the mask mandate on planes, trains, and buses Monday.

But the Biden administration’s Department of Justice plans to appeal that ruling.

“Once again, the Biden Administration defaults to government overreach and fighting for forced mandates, rather than trusting Americans to make smart decisions on their own, or actually trying to lead people in a certain direction,” said Christian Nascimento, a Republican running for Congress in Montgomery County. “I was actually on a flight when the announcement came over that the airline would no longer enforce the mask mandate. Passengers broke into applause.”

At Philadelphia’s airport, people must wear masks inside, as required by the city’s latest mask mandate, but they can remove them once they are on their plane.

Heather Redfern, airport public affairs manager, said, “While our airline partners are no longer requiring masks on planes, a current City of Philadelphia Department of Health mandate requires everyone to wear a face mask in public indoor settings in the city…Enforcement includes signage and employees reminding passengers and staff of the city’s mandate. The airport has free masks available for all that need them.”

If the Biden administration is counting on support from Pennsylvania’s elected officials, it will be disappointed.

Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-Pa.) spokeswoman said he was “part of a bipartisan majority who voted to strike this mask mandate down.”

“We are at a place where those who want to be vaccinated can be readily vaccinated,” said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Chester/Berks). “We are at a place where people have educated themselves on the benefits of masking. And we are at a place where our schools, businesses, offices, and services are open. Because we have done the work over the past two years to successfully allocate federal resources to provide things like therapeutics, tests, vaccines, boosters, and masks to our community, I’m not supportive of a mask mandate at this time.”

She also said she is “continuing to push for bipartisan COVID funding” and plans to keep wearing her mask and getting tested.

Guy Ciarrocchi, one of the Republicans running in the May 17 primary to oppose Houlahan in November, said, “Biden’s decision to appeal this ruling is outrageous. Mandating masks in April 2022 defies science and common sense. Moreover, it shows how out-of-touch he is. I call on Congresswoman Houlahan to join with me in demanding that Biden drop this appeal.  If they won’t stop this madness, I will be part of the next Republican Congress that will.”

“I think it is complete nonsense,” said Ron Vogel, another Republican in the 6th District primary. “The only good thing that has happened in this country since Joe Biden has been in charge is that the mask mandate was lifted.  It was lifted because President Donald Trump appointed a judge with the courage to do it.  My opponent, Chrissy Houlahan, is anti-science. She supports all of the draconian mandates and lockdowns. Earlier this week, she held a town hall that ignored the science. She specifically picked a venue that required everyone to show a vaccine card in order to enter.”

Former Ambassador Carla Sands, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, cited a 2020 Danish study that showed no statistical difference between wearing and not wearing masks.

“I am opposed to any mandates. I think they’re unconstitutional. I think people need to read and educate themselves and make the best decision for themselves,” Sands said during a Delaware Valley Journal podcast.

“Dave is vehemently opposed to government vaccine and mask mandates and supports the rights of individuals to make decisions that best suit their unique situation. What we’re seeing in Philadelphia and elsewhere to reinstate mask mandates shows that science has been replaced by woke virtue signaling,” said David McCormick campaign spokesperson Jess Szymanski. The Republican is also running for the U.S. Senate.

“Biden promised to ‘follow the science’ back in September. But his policies smell of virtue-signaling rather than pragmatic policy-making,” said GOP Senate candidate Kathy Barnette. “We have children wearing masks on busses but not in school, families wearing them to board the plane but not during the flight, people putting on and taking off masks as they cross jurisdictions, and the government coercing private companies into maintaining mandates which have no documented relationship to health concerns.

“The bottom line is that these mandates are a means of control, not responsible health policy.  The judge is right to reject them, and the administration just can’t bear the idea that they don’t get to tell us what to do,” she said.

And Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz, who is running for the Senate, told Greg Kelly on Newsmax TV Wednesday surgical masks should be changed every few hours and worn correctly to be effective.

“I don’t think (masks) make a difference on planes…50 percent of the air on a plane comes from outside the plane. There is no COVID at 35,000 feet, and the rest of the air is purified so cleanly it’s better than being at home,” said Oz.

David Galluch, a Republican running to oust Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Delaware/Philadelphia), said, “Vaccines and natural immunity provide highly significant protection against COVID for the vast majority of Americans. The recent ruling doesn’t preclude people from wearing a mask. It simply gives Americans a choice. Those who have underlying conditions, are at risk, or are concerned about contracting COVID should continue to do what they feel is best for their health and safety after consulting a medical professional. But I believe it’s time Americans have a choice when it comes to masking.”

Several DelVal residents posted their thoughts on Facebook.

Walter Plotnick of Elkins Park said, “Personally, being sandwiched shoulder to shoulder with often sneezing, coughing members of the general public unmasked in recycled air is a deal-breaker for me.”

But, others disagreed.

Cheltenham resident Dawn Pitts Tollett Johnston said, “I fly a lot and am thrilled that the mask mandate will be lifted. The air is not stale. It’s filtered and recirculated continuously. So yes, I am perfectly comfortable with flying. I refuse to live my life in fear.”

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Greyhound said masks are now optional on buses except when crossing into Canada or Mexico or disembarking in a local municipality that requires them.

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Chester County Judge Orders Five West Chester School Board Members Removed

In a stunning move, Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas Judge William Mahon ordered the removal of all five Democrats on the West Chester Area School Board on Tuesday in a dispute over the district’s mandatory mask policy.

Mahon wrote his decision was a “procedural result” of the school district attorneys’ failure to comply with a March 15 court order instructing them to respond to a removal petition filed by upset mother Beth Ann Rosica, who has children attending school in the district.

Because of that, West Chester Area Board President Sue Tiernan and board members Joyce Chester, Karen Herman, Kate Shaw, and Daryl Durnell — all supporters of increasingly unpopular mask mandates — are now out of jobs. Meanwhile, the district’s legal team is looking to address the procedural gaffe on the back end.

It is unclear whether Mahon will entertain their arguments as to why the district did not follow the deadline order. The parties now have seven days to provide to the judge a list of names of five replacements, according to the order.

However, school district attorneys filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing the deadline for a response was actually April 4, WHYY reported. The motion asks the court to vacate the order and reinstate the board members while allowing district attorneys until April 4 to file a written response to the petition.

The judge’s initial ruling is a stunning move considering that Rosica, who has no formal legal training, faced long odds of getting the board members removed under the Pennsylvania Public School Code for favoring masking policies amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

She and another mother, Shannon Grady, mobilized parents in other districts to take similar action against school leaders. They said in their petitions mask policies caused students “permanent and irreparable harm” by “fabricating, feigning or intentionally exaggerating or including a medical symptom or disease which results in a potentially harmful medical evaluation or treatment.”

“I was kinda crying and happy and laughing,” said Grady, who is awaiting the outcome of a petition calling for the removal of Downingtown board President LeeAnn Wisdom, Vice President Caryn Ghrayeb, and board members Jane Bertone, Joyce Houghton and Audrey Blust. “I’ve never been in court before, and that’s why it’s so funny. So many parents reached out to attorneys, and none of them took this route. It just shows what perseverance can do. There are ways for the people to have justice. This could change the landscape.”

Rosica called the decision a “pleasant surprise.”

“It’s very gratifying to have the judge rule in our favor,” she said. “It’s been a long two years of feeling like we’re not heard by our school board. This was a way to hold them accountable for the decisions that they’ve made.”

The judge scheduled a hearing for 9:30 a.m. Friday to hear the reconsideration motion. Rosica said she is prepared to move forward with presenting her case if the judge decides to give the district another chance.

“We feel we have a valid legal argument,” she said. A provision in the code allows residents to push for removal of board members who “refuse or neglect to perform any duties.”

The mothers were emboldened by 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. West Chester continued to impose the mandate even after the ruling declaring the state’s policy unconstitutional.

The justices did not 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 did not “act by whim or fiat in all matters concerning disease.”

In a message to parents Tuesday night, West Chester Superintendent Bob Sokolowski said attorneys for the district were “in the process of preparing a substantive response” to the mothers’ claims in the petition.

He did not say why the district’s legal team didn’t meet the initial deadline to file a response to the removal petition.

“While we do not have all of the answers at this time, please be assured that the West Chester Area School District and I remain deeply committed to the mission of educating and inspiring the best in our students,” Sokolowsi said. “As many of you who have emailed or spoken with me over this past year know, I strive to connect with each and every member of our community to answer questions and address concerns in a timely manner.”

Mahon’s decision comes after a federal court judge in another case in the Perkiomen Valley School District in Montgomery County issued an injunction keeping the district’s masking policy in effect after school leaders relaxed it to optional in January.

Parents complained the school’s decision violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because immunocompromised children were more susceptible to contracting and dying from the respiratory disease that has claimed millions worldwide.

The judge in that case, Wendy Beetlestone, wrote that district leaders faced “excruciating choices” trying to keep students and staff safe from the virus while ensuring everyone has equal learning access. However, by March 14, Beetlestone had reversed her decision and ruled that Perkiomen Valley students and staff no longer had to wear masks.

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DILLMUTH-MILLER: Speech and Language Delays? It Could Be the Masks!

The damage done to our children due to the pandemic, or our response to it, has been rearing its sick head. Approaching the two-year anniversary of the March 2020 shutdown and mask-wearing, speech-language pathologists have been reporting sudden surges in speech and language referrals, with some reporting over a 300 percent overall increase,  especially in the infant and toddler age group. Meanwhile, scientists at Brown University found that children born during the pandemic had a 23 percent significant drop in their early learning composite score which includes measures in expressive and receptive language. Could masks have anything to do with the significant uptick in young children needing services.

Considering information known about mask acoustics, frequent ear infections in very young children, and speech and language development, the possibility that masks present harm to the speech and language learning process should be considered, especially for those children who spend significant portions of their day with masked caregivers. After all, parents should be informed of risks so that they can consider the pros and cons and make the best decision for their children.

Infants arrive into the world primed to learn spoken speech and language. Rapid development occurs during this critical language-learning period typically defined between birth to three years of age when they develop from quiet, active observers to a sentence-speaking preschoolers. During the critical language-learning period, the brain is especially primed to learn language, but it’s also vulnerable if deprivation occurs. Developing clear, spoken speech necessitates clear, consistent auditory input day in and day out.

After observing the increased difficulties people, especially those with hearing loss, are having understanding conversation when masked, researchers, such as Ryan Corey, measured mask acoustics in different mask types. He found that all masks muffle high-frequency speech sounds, mostly some of the quiet consonants which are more difficult to hear to begin with. Imagine not being able to hear /s/, /t/, /f/, /ch/, /sh/ or word endings. Consonants enable the listener to determine what is said while vowels being more intense, gives speech power.

In addition to some sounds inaudible through a mask, add to the mix, the elimination of the ability of speechreading, the more accurate term for lipreading, and difficulties understanding speech is not surprising even in those with normal hearing. To allow the listener to speech read, some started using masks with clear, plastic windows, but these presented their own issues. Corey found that these clear mask types block the most sound. Plus, the clear masks fog up limiting visibility anyway. The masks filter sound giving us all what is equivalent to a mild hearing loss. Even mild hearing lossis known to cause speech and language delays, reading struggles, and academic difficulties.

Children are not immune to hearing loss either, and in fact, temporary loss is quite common. Children aged 6 months to 4 years, which happens to be within that critical language-learning period, are particularly vulnerable to middle ear fluid, or Otitis Media with Effusion (OME), due to their inefficient and immature Eustachian Tubes.

In fact, 80-90 percent of children will have experienced middle-ear fluidby the time they enter school, and two thirds of them will have experienced a recurring episode. OME decreases the ability of the eardrum to conduct sound resulting in hearing loss, albeit temporary, but the fluid can last 2-4 weeks at a time and reoccur resulting in periods of auditory deprivation. Hearing loss at a young age is associated with speech and language delays. Hearing loss in addition to the sound reduction caused by masks would have an additive effect.

Through studying faces, listening to sounds, and practicing through babble, babies learn how to speak. Patricia Kuhl, a researcher internationally known for her work on early language and brain development, found that babies as young as 4.5 months old could hear a vowel sound and match the corresponding face pronouncing the heard vowel sound.

Often, the babies would make the mouth movement themselves. These findings suggest not only do babies connect the auditory and visual modalities, but also a connection is made with the mouth movements when learning speech.

The fact that blind babies can develop speech does not mean seeing the face is not important. Rather, this fact shows support that hearing is the most important sense for learning spoken speech and language and seeing takes a supportive role. Hearing consistently is integral to developing speech and language and can be limited by temporary hearing loss and mask acoustics without visual cues to compensate.

Professionals should be arming parents with information so that they can make educated decisions regarding the health and well-being of their children. For example, if masks will be worn, a clear mask while wearing a microphone to enhance speech loudness may be a viable solution to address the above concerns. Parents may also decide to send their children to a daycare that does not institute a mask mandate. When given the facts, parents can weigh the pros and cons and make an educated decision regarding their children’s interactions.

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Chester Co. Judge Allows Cases to Advance Against Two School Boards Over Mask Policies

Common Pleas Judge William P. Mahon permitted recall petitions against the West Chester Area School Board and Downingtown Area School Board to go forward. It is the first hurdle in recalling members of the two Chester County school boards over COVID mask requirements.

The school districts have 20 days to file their responses.

“We are pleased that the judge has ordered the West Chester School Board to file a response explaining why they should not be removed from office,” said resident Beth Ann Rosica, executive director of Back to School PA PAC. Her organization supports school board candidates who promise to avoid lockdowns and keep kids in school. “It shows that the claims made have, at least, some level of merit. Our position is that this is a legal question, plain and simple. Either the board members have the legal authority to mandate masks, or they do not.  We believe that they do not have the authority, and we hope that the judge agrees with us. We believe that is important to pursue this petition in order to hold the Board members accountable for their actions and to hopefully prevent our children from being forcibly masked again.”

Shannon Grady, who filed the petition against Downingtown, said that “the biggest challenge” was figuring out the rules since neither of the petitioners is a lawyer and they filed the petitions without legal counsel.

“We’re just moms,” said Grady. “It’s really encouraging that it hasn’t been thrown out. We’re optimistic.”

The petitions seek to remove the school board members for “neglect of duty, regarding imposing the mask mandates. The parents are “trying to hold (the board members) accountable.”

Grady said she is seeking justice for every child. By making children wear masks, “you are harming children,” she said. At public meetings, parents have spoken to the school boards, and “they ignore you.”

“I sent my district very amicable notices, and they did not respond,” she said. “The crux is you don’t have authority (to impose mask mandates),” she said since the state Supreme Court ruled the state Board of Health did not. “School boards don’t have that authority.”

Meanwhile, Downingtown Area School District spokeswoman Jennifer Shealey said, “Because this is a case that is currently in front of the courts, we are unable to comment at this time.”

Similarly, a spokesperson for West Chester said the district would not comment on “an ongoing legal matter.”

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Mandatory School Mask Policies Remain Divisive Among DelVal Parents

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.

 

Radnor Ditches Mask Mandate

The Centers for Disease Control on Friday lifted mask mandates across the country, depending on factors such as the number of cases in an area.

But Radnor parents were way ahead of them. Many came to a school board meeting last week to demand the mask requirements be lifted.  After a lengthy meeting the board agreed.

Many residents cited recent graphs to build their case for moving to an optional masking policy in schools.

“The final graph compares the Radnor School infection rates under the mask mandate to four other school districts that are mask optional. The curves are practically identical. I don’t see a correlation between mask-wearing and transmission rate. The scientific evidence that masking is doing any significant amount of good is disappearing,” one woman said to applause.

While the debate over how best to respond to the pandemic is framed as political, Radnor citizens had little to say about politics on Monday night. “…I think that our children have endured the most. These moments are real for them. What’s becoming a normal life for them is not what any of us know as normal,” said Dave Falcone, a parent and former school board member.

A few children and teenagers voiced their thoughts. Still submitted written testimony on the matter. Student Cackie Martin asked, “Do you know how much less frequently students participate… when they have to raise their voice to the level of a yell just to be heard by teachers in their plexiglass cage? Tonight I stand here begging you for oxygen for my classmates and I and I’m just begging to see a friendly smile in the hallways of the high school,” she concluded to a standing ovation.

Many speakers took a strictly scientific approach. Resident Chris Vail cited a variety of studies, including ones from the CDC, WHO, Annals of Internal Medicine, and PLOS1 in his argument for a mask-optional policy. “The fact is we spent two years arguing about whether or not we were following the science— and the science for face masks has never been there. It’s time we stop the madness, we admit that we were wrong, we admit our mistakes and we let the kids breathe freely, finally. As they deserve.”

Christina Heinzer summarized 65 studies that all concluded masks have damaging health consequences. She enumerated the side effects that could be linked to mask use from increases in blood carbon dioxide, heart and respiratory rates to decreases in cardiopulmonary capacity, heart issues, exhaustion, as well as emotional issues, headaches, and dental issues.

While many of the evening’s speakers were sympathetic to how difficult these safety decisions can be for commissioners, none spoke in favor of a mandatory mask policy. Even the commissioners lamented how challenging it had been to preside over the previous decisions made on the matter.

“We don’t take this lightly. This has been the most daunting thing I will ever do in my life— and I raised three children,” said School Board President Susan Stern. In a unanimous vote, the board decided to move the district into a mask-optional phase.

 

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Are Masks Helping or Hurting Our Children?

With the back and forth from the CDC on which masks are truly helpful in slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, it’s easy to worry about the safety of our children. Pennsylvania has 500 school districts, and some still require students to wear their masks indoors while others move to make masks optional.

Some fear that continued masking mandates might spark mental health conditions for students. Still, Inna Leiter, Psy.D., child and adolescent psychologist and director of the Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy told Delaware Valley Journal that isn’t necessarily the case.

Inna Leiter

“I think that since we’ve had to start masking we have undoubtedly seen an increase in anxiety,” Leiter said. “But so many other changes have come along with that, including parents being more stressed and intermittent quarantines, that it’s really hard to point to a causal relationship between masking and any specific mental health issues.”

Leiter mentions many contributing factors are causing students stress and anxiety during the pandemic. One is the uncertainty surrounding guidelines.

“What I have seen anxiety about specifically in my clinical practice is that it’s really unclear what the guidelines are regarding safety and how to apply them consistently,” Leiter said. “Some parents are more strict, some parents are less strict, and so sometimes it can cause anxiety in kids trying to fit in if their parents are really strict. If they’re hanging out with their friends and their friends aren’t wearing a mask but their mom won’t let them go anywhere unless they’re wearing a mask. Sometimes they’re the only ones wearing a mask. That can cause some stress. I don’t know if that’ll turn into an anxiety disorder but it’s just an added social stressor of navigating when to wear the mask.”

Nicole Lombardi, the owner of Speech Matters, LLC, told DVJ it is also difficult to say if masks harm children’s ability to speak.

“While we cannot say definitively whether masks are inhibiting kids from learning to talk, we can absolutely see some negative impacts of masking,” Lombardi said. “Masking makes it difficult for our little ones acquiring language to see our faces, so they’re limited to only hearing sounds and words, which sometimes isn’t enough in isolation. Additionally, masking has impacted not only young ones learning language but also those who have already acquired language and are addressing the nuances of language in everyday communications.”

Nicole Lombardi

In addition to language skills, Lombardi has noticed masking impacts children’s social skills.

“Masking has negatively impacted children addressing social skills due to the inability to read a person’s facial expressions and nonverbal cues,” Lombardi explained. “Do I have a valid answer to this? No. But, I can say that the number of 1-2-year-olds who have joined our Speech Matters community since the implementation of masking has more than doubled from years prior to 2020.”

Lombardi said masking is n0t much of an issue when it comes to older students unless they are already seeing a speech therapist.

“From my purview, I do not see masking for older students learning new terms as an issue,” Lombardi said. “I do see it as an issue for older kids who are (a) working on speech sound production skills (perhaps they make an F for a TH sound, like “bad” for “bath”). As I mentioned, I have seen great impact of masks on older students working on their social language skills, particularly in reading nonverbal social cues (facial expressions are often key to reading a social situation).”

Lombardi added rapport is a big part of therapy in any specialty, and masks can have a negative impact on children building that rapport with their speech therapists.

“Masks make it difficult to feel that you truly know a child, their families and caregivers, and vice versa,” Lombardi said. “It’s not immediately obvious, but it is rather jarring to think that you could show a picture of three women without masks to a child who has been working with one of them for several months and the child would not be able to choose which woman was his or her therapist. It is both sad and concerning, thinking about the impact masks have had on rapport building.”

When asked if there was anything parents could do to help their children, Lombardi’s answer was simple.

“Model, model, model,” she said. “Parents are the face of therapy when with their child in a private and maskless setting. We as therapists will need to rely on you to model speech sounds, language skills, and social interpretation/use of language at home and in the community. While therapists and children can wear clear masks or masks with windows, there is still a barrier to the child’s direct access to facial cues. It is also helpful to monitor your child’s progress at home and report back. Share videos of your child working on their speech and language skills at home, maskless, so therapists are able to see what is occurring behind the mask and provide helpful feedback for practice and improvements.”

It is difficult to say how masks will impact children long-term, and that uncertainty can add to the growing list of stressors for parents and their children.

“Uncertainty is really hard for people,” Leiter said. “For people with anxiety, uncertainty is like an Achilles heel. Uncertainty is the thing that anxiety latches onto. So, in this era of uncertainty, it makes sense that people are struggling with anxiety. Is it caused by masks? I can’t say that but the uncertainty about masks is likely to contribute to the pool of uncertainty that we’re all facing.”

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STEIN: Looking Back at DelVal News for 2021

“There is a Chinese curse which says May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty, but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind,” Robert F. Kennedy said in 1966.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic reached our shores, the country and the Delaware Valley have been living in “interesting times,” to say the least. Everything from shopping to education to sports has been seen through the lens of COVID, and whether it might lead one to contract it or would mitigate the virus.

Local and state governments collected numbers and issued mandates. Schools were locked down, reopened, and some locked down again. One of the biggest political stories the Delaware Valley Journal covered in 2021 was the rise of parent power. Parents objected to COVID lockdowns and masks at school board meetings, parents opposed to Critical Race Theory, and shocked parents asking school boards to remove what they deem as pornographic books from school libraries, along with school boards limiting parents’ free speech rights.

This also gave rise to election victories for school board candidates who promised not to shut down schools again and the successful statewide political strategy of Back to School PA PAC, which gave about $700,000 to back those candidates’ campaigns.

Another big story this year is crime and violence in Philadelphia, arguably driven by progressive prosecution—or lack thereof—by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office headed by DA Larry Krasner, who was re-elected in November. As of this writing, 555 people were victims of homicide in Philadelphia in 2021—a horrific new record.

At the state government level, voters sent a clear message to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in May when they approved ballot initiatives limiting his emergency powers. It was a also the year when amazing numbers of Republican candidates began vying for the governor’s seat in the 2022 primary, along with similarly large  fields of hopefuls of both parties seeking the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Pat Toomey. The Senate race, which may tip the balance of the Senate, could become one of the most closely-watched political contests in the U.S.

The 2021 election process in some DelVal counties also came under fire as delays, mistakes, and mail-in ballots caused consternation.  That has also been a huge issue nationwide since former President Donald Trump questioned the validity of the election process that resulted in his defeat in the swing states, including Pennsylvania. And a lawsuit was filed against Delaware County officials alleging malfeasance in the handling of the 2020 election there.

Another statewide issue in the DelVal Journal was Wolf’s unilateral plunge into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a move that will undoubtedly limit Pennsylvania’s job growth and drive up energy costs for businesses and residents.

RGGI is supposed to reduce greenhouse gases by an auction process for power producers and industrial plants in 12 states, which buy credits to offset emissions. But those other RGGI states are not energy producers like Pennsylvania, with its wealth of natural gas.

And we have closely followed the controversy over the $6.1 billion Mariner East II pipeline. Some residents who live in the vicinity of the pipeline along with public officials have fought the pipeline, while overlooking clear benefits from the pipeline for employment, safety over rail or truck transport, and reduced energy costs. Luckily, for the economy of the DelVal region those efforts appear to have failed and the project is on track for completion.

Locally, Hurricane Ida hit some DelVal areas hard with flood damage as streams overflowed their banks while tornadoes pummeled parts of Bucks and Montgomery Counties.

National issues of inflation and supply-side woes also affected the Delaware Valley region as the Biden administration’s energy and regulatory policies began to be felt here.

In Norristown, the DelVal Journal broke a story regarding Norristown Area School Board President Shae Ashe sending sexually suggestive messages on social media to an underage Norristown High School girl. In the wake of those articles, Ashe resigned from the board and, although he was re-elected, did not return to it.

In Delaware County, the new Health Department, promised by Democrats who were elected to a majority in the county council in 2019, is taking shape and expected to open in 2022. It will cost taxpayers an estimated $10 million its first year.

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