BARNEGAT – Parents and a 17-year-old high school student challenged the Barnegat Board of Education to “take a stand” and drop the district’s mask mandate.
Before listening to comments from anti-mask advocates, Barnegat Township School Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian Latwis shared that he and Board President Sean O’Brien intended to co-sign a letter to Governor Phil Murphy regarding the requirements for masks.
“As always, our district is operating in compliance with all state mandates,” emphasized Latwis. “However, we believe that we are at a point in the state policy regarding students and staff wearing masks at school, both indoors and outdoors, could be reasonably reevaluated. Barnegat supports consideration for masks as optional in the schools, as long as data continues to trend in the right direction.”
Medical and scientific experts have said that wearing masks is one of the best ways to slow the spread of coronavirus. While the vaccine is currently available for teenagers, it is not available for those under 12.
Suspended Stafford school nurse Erin Pein lives in Barnegat and has three school-aged children, two of whom are homeschooled. Pein went into work on a Friday without a mask and was suspended when she returned the following Monday. Pein has also assumed the role of a student advocate – saying the masks are causing the kids more harm than good.
Pein thanked district leaders for their letter but encouraged them to act without waiting for state directives.
“Please make a decision not to follow this mandate anymore,” implored Pein of the school board. “I realize there are consequences – but there are already consequences that we are paying with our children. Please choose to protect the children and make the hard decision to give up whatever it is you need to protect them.”
Barnegat High School student Mark Steven Ford spoke on his own behalf. An aspiring actor, Mark previously delivered an impassioned plea to the board to mitigate problems with Wi-Fi access in the high school.
In a soliloquy presented with the furor of a Shakespearean character, Mark didn’t limit his comments to masks. He said the advent of school lockdowns caused him to lose everything. Mark detailed feelings of isolation, anger, and depression.
“I communicate by relying on the expressions and emotions of others,” Mark shared. “What is their body, their eyes, their mouth, their tone, saying about me and my words? These masks make their expressions unreadable.”
“I can’t form a bond with people if I can’t see their faces and how they feel,” continued Mark. “…I want my life back. I want to go to school and see my friends and teachers. I want to go out into society and see people’s faces and know that I am accepted with my face just the way it is: mask free.”
Mark’s mother, Kelly Ford, followed her son’s comments, explaining his outcries were his emotional response to missing his entire junior year. Kelly and her sister Kate both have special needs children, who have issues with wearing masks. The sisters own Breakers Kitchen and Tap in Waretown and juggle their duties to provide learning experiences for their sons.
Kelly said she recognized the district’s hands were tied as far as the mask mandates. A former teacher and school administrator, Kelly also questioned whether the mask mandate violated Americans With Disability Act laws requiring free, public access to education. Her concerns led to a consultation with Bruce Afran, Esquire, a constitutional lawyer.
I don’t want to sue schools, so I’m going right to the top,” Kelly said. “…I decided to start a class action lawsuit to sue the governor and the Department of Education because I know you (Barnegat Schools) are doing what you feel like you have to do.”
According to Kelly, Afran requires a $50,000 retainer for the lawsuit, which the attorney planned to file in federal court. A website the Barnegat mom set up called FreeNJ says the issue isn’t about the ineffectiveness of masks but instead whether the mandate violates constitutional rights. The GoFundMe page designed to pay legal fees was at nearly $27,000 earlier this week.
Officials at other schools have made similar requests, including Central Regional, Toms River, and Ocean Gate.
Despite the letters from district leaders, the New Jersey Education Association sees masks as important to keep educators and students healthy.
“As we have since last March, NJEA continues to advocate for taking all necessary measures to protect the health and safety of all students and staff,” said spokesperson Steve Baker. “Current medical guidance continues to recommend masking for all unvaccinated individuals, a group that includes the vast majority of the students in our public schools. We should not take any risks or shortcuts as we work to emerge from this pandemic.”
-Chris Lundy contributed to this story