BARNEGAT – William “Chip” Junker, President of the Barnegat Educational Association, filed two separate complaints against four board of education members who failed to wear their masks at the board’s August meeting.
According to Junker, his complaints allege the unmasked board members violated the governor’s executive orders by failing to wear masks in a school building. He filed one of the complaints with the Barnegat Police Department and the other with the state website.
“It will be up to the Attorney General’s office to review the matter and file charges,” said Junker. “I just filed the complaints.”
The school board’s vice president, Richard Quelch, and members Alicia Bivins, Sandra Churney, and Robert Sawicki wore no masks when they first took their seats on the Barnegat High School theatre stage. They remained unmasked for the duration of the meeting.
Junker called into the meeting and praised the district for its actions to keep staff members and students well last year. He then addressed the board members’ failure to wear masks.
“By making this political statement tonight, the four board members have only made the administration’s job and the staff’s jobs harder when all of staff and students return,” Junker stated. “…We lead by example here in Barnegat.”
School Board President Sean O’Brien wrote to Governor Phil Murphy last month requesting that decisions regarding the masks be left to the discretion of local districts. He cited Barnegat’s use of a data matrix to make decisions regarding virtual and in-person learning. O’Brien suggested the same information would be used in screening and PPE requirements.
Meanwhile, O’Brien decided he personally intended to follow what he understands as the rules.
“Of course, everyone finds the masks uncomfortable,” shared O’Brien. “But as a leader of the school board, I don’t think it would be fair for me to ask the staff and students to wear one if I can’t for a few hours at a meeting.”
“I’ve also heard from many families who support Governor Murphy’s mandate,” O’Brien stated. “Their voices cannot be ignored either. We want to do our best to keep the district safe and open.”
Two of the four board members who went without masks responded to requests for comment after the meeting.
Quelch criticized those who jumped on what he dubbed the “bandwagon” for calling him disrespectful for not asking him first why he chose to go without a mask.
“I did make sure I was legally allowed to participate without a mask,” Quelch shared. “I did not just show up to disrespect anyone. It was to show solidarity to everyone who is against wearing a mask, like myself.
“I personally feel horrible for all these students, staff, and families in this district, who are upset to wear a mask all day and unsure what the long-time effects of wearing a mask has on their physical, mental, and social health,” continued Quelch. “I have been in the customer service industry for 30 years, and it is necessary to see faces to learn and socialize properly in life to succeed.”
When questioned about whether he sought legal advice concerning his assertion that he could legally participate in the meeting unmasked, Quelch texted a response stating, “my legal stance is that Executive Order 251 deals with school operations and 196 stands for the premise that school boards are different than schools.”
The text message continued by saying that school boards are more like governing bodies and that unless there is a mandate that calls for masks indoors, they didn’t need to be worn at meetings.
School Board Attorney Martin Buckley said he initially thought he could make a legal argument that the board meeting was not held during school hours. However, that’s no longer the case.
Executive Order 253 went further than the prior mandates. Governor Murphy signed that order the day before the board’s meeting.
“It makes it a little clearer,” explained Buckley. “The masks are required whenever you’re in a school building, not just when school is in session.”
Buckley confirmed the governor’s executive orders are mandates that act as laws. Board member Sawicki still objects and stated his reasons for going without a mask at the meeting.
“It was my choice to show symbolic support as an individual and as a taxpayer for the administrators, teachers, and most of all the children, who are being forced to wear it against their will and belief,” said Sawicki. “We stood up for students, teachers and administrators, who feel the same way. I believe it should be an individual choice to wear a mask.”
Sawicki said that by going without a mask, he put no one in harm’s way. He is vaccinated and described his seat as more than double the “recommended” distance from the next person on stage.
“When elected, I was elected to stand up and be a voice for everyone,” concluded Sawicki.
Two other board members wore masks while still expressing their opposition to them. George Fedorczyk physically left the stage to speak at the podium during the public portion of the meeting. Fedorczyk clarified he was not speaking in his capacity as a board member when he said that parents needed to make mask-wearing decisions.
“You might be surprised how many people up here are in support of not having masks,” Board member Michael Hickey said from the stage. “Our community seems to think this is the appropriate body that can change that mandate. The problem is that we can’t.”
Hickey stated that every board member and the district as a whole are expected to uphold executive orders and laws from the governor, legislature, and Supreme Court.
“If we don’t do that, everyone up here is at risk for one thing or another,” Hickey shared. “If we don’t enforce mask mandates in the schools, teachers or administrators can lose certifications.”
“Board members can be prosecuted and risk spending up to six months in jail and $1,000 fines,” continued Hickey. “For those of us who are state or federal employees, we also risk losing our security clearances and other items that are out there.”
Hickey concluded his statement by saying he supported those who were against the mask mandates but suggested they bring their fight where they could make a difference.
“You have to get in front of the governor somehow – whether that’s protests, whether that’s lawsuits, whether that’s going to be the Supreme Court, whether that’s contacting the state legislators – your assemblymen or your senators,” said Hickey. “…I have a lot of ideas on that, and I will talk to you about them as a private citizen after the meeting.”
State and local medical professionals have called for the use of masks in school because people who are vaccinated can still be carriers of the virus. They might not even have symptoms and can still transmit COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control, masks have been found to protect other people from any possible virus you might not know you have, in addition to protecting you from other people.