The ongoing debate over requiring children to wear masks at school boiled over recently during a North Penn School Board work session, causing officials to end the second public comment period early.

With the start of the school year for students set for August 30, the board is reviewing its health and safety plan. The plan stipulates that masks will be mandatory for elementary students when the new school year begins and optional for secondary students.

The proposed policy will likely be up for a final vote when the board holds its next action meeting on August 19.

The North Penn health and safety plan, which is subject to state approval, was adopted on July 15. As currently written, it states masks will be optional for secondary students and optional at the elementary level so long as the COVID-19 incidence rate in the county remains below 20 cases per 100,000 residents, the positivity rate is five percent or below. The board will revisit the situation if those numbers rise. The plan also stipulates local health officials’ recommendations will factor into any mask-related decisions.

District residents who spoke during the first of two public comment periods during the Aug. 10 work session were sharply divided on the mask issue.

Montgomery Township resident Beth Staub has a child who is a senior in high school and three others who have graduated.

“We would like to go back to normal,” she said. “To do so, we have to be responsible and be leaders.”

Staub noted COVID-related statistics are constantly being updated. “We have to look at that data on a very local level,” she said, “because what may be happening in one part of the county may not be happening here. Doing nothing is not an option and we have to whatever we can to put something in place, a barrier, a ceiling, something to protect our kids. Is it perfect? No. But it’s something.”

Upper Gwynedd resident Jessie Bradica is a Republican candidate for a seat on the board, which now is composed of nine Democrats. She has three children who are students in the district.

“This is very reminiscent of the last summer’s decision to close schools,” she said “This, to me, is beyond mask versus no mask. This is now a now a national COVID political debate at the most local and personal level.”

Yanni Lambros owns the Koffee Korner Cafe in Lansdale and is also a Republican running for Lansdale Borough Council.

“Do you know how COVID spreads? It spreads just like the flu,” he said. “Through the years of all the flu spreads and spikes, did we lock it down, mask up children? Did we make them learn from home? No, nobody was freaking out then. Why are we now?”

District Solicitor Kyle Somers said the board has the legal authority to adopt mandatory masking protocols.

“Under Pennsylvania law there is a history, dating back more than a hundred years, of school districts adopting rules and regulations governing the safety of students during the time that they are in attendance at school,” he said and cited a state Supreme Court ruling.

“The court said, according to the ability to adopt reasonable rules and regulations that a school had that authority,” he said. “So, the question is, if there were a legal challenge brought, would a court be likely to determine that a mask requirement is reasonable rule or regulation that the school board enacted? From a legal perspective, this is obviously a public health issue, of whether masking is a requirement… If (the district) were to adopt these recommendations, it’s certainly my opinion that a court would day that was a reasonable action.”

District Superintendent Dr. Carl Dietrich anticipates schools will open on time, in person and five says a week.

But officials ended the Aug. 10  session early after audience members repeatedly interrupted the board’s discussion.

After the unruly spectators ignored several admonishments by Dietrich, Somers, and board president Tina Stoll, officials adjourned the meeting three minutes into the second public comment period, which was scheduled to last for 30 minutes.

Other districts also face pushback from parents on the mask issue. For example, a recent decision by the Central Bucks School Board to make masks optional brought out parents who pushed for masks and those firmly against.