LACEY – Board members assembled for a special meeting to discuss the school district’s 2021-22 reopening plan and Governor Phil Murphy’s executive order 251 which mandates the wearing of masks by students and all school staff.
That has been a contentious issue in some school districts across the state. The executive order calls for masks to be worn when schools reopen in an effort to curtail the spread of COVID-19.
While Board President Donna McAvoy, Board Vice President Frank Palino, members Linda Downing, Edward Scanlon and Regina Discenza voted to approve the district’s health guidelines in accordance to the governor’s executive orders, Board members Harold “Skip” Peters and Kim Klaus did not.
In her vote for the resolution, Discenza said she was voting yes but “it is against my better judgement” and that remark angered a number of attendees who felt the Board should stand up against the governor’s mandate. Many added that the Board was there to represent them and with this decision, they were failing to do that.
Superintendent Vanessa Clark provided details of the district’s “Road Forward Plan” noting that the Board previously sent a letter to the Governor concerning their position opposing the mask mandate. They asked for the decision to be left to individual school districts. In that letter, McAvoy said individual school districts were more equipped to make the decision.
McAvoy also said in that letter that Lacey had “invested significantly in PPE, infrastructure improvements, and training” in preparation to resume full-day instruction on a five-day basis.
“We can not have two sets of rules. We must abide by it whether we agree with it or not,” Clark said.
This wasn’t the first time, angry parents came to a school board meeting to share their opposition to mask wearing.
Amanda Buron who is a Board of Education candidate was among the 50 protestors outside Lacey High School. She said the purpose of the rally was “for them (the Board) to see how serious we are that we are not sending our kids back to school with masks.” Board candidate Sal Armato also spoke up against the mandate during the evening.
Parents challenged the science of wearing the masks and demanded the Board disregard Governor Murphy’s mask mandate. They brought signs like one stating “Let me smile, laugh, choose, breathe.”
Buron said this time that the Board never responded to parents’ questions and request that the school district sign on to litigation concerning the issue. She and others were critical of the Board’s decision to not directly respond to questions put to them during meetings and only responding online.
McAvoy repeatedly reminded speakers that while this was a public comment period limited to five minutes, it did not involve a question-and-answer format.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics provided the basis for the governor’s executive orders. Around the Garden State approximately 281 school-related coronavirus outbreaks have been reported according to the state health department. A dozen of those were in Ocean County.
Children who are under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination. Murphy’s order excludes indoor masking in cases of extreme heat, for those who have trouble breathing and students who have certain medical conditions or disabilities that would preclude the wearing of masks. Masks can also be removed during eating, drinking, exercise and the playing of musical instruments.
Clark said she had sent an e-mail out to the community that includes a link to the district’s health and safety guidance plan that included mask protocols.
She said executive order 253 applies to staff providing adequate proof of full vaccination or submit to COVID testing. “This requirement does not take place until October so we will be spending some time reviewing it and figuring out what we have to have in place.”
If a child is sent to a bus stop without a mask, one will be provided on the bus, Clark said. If the student comes into a school building without one, they will be given a mask to wear. Should the student refuse to wear the mask they will be put into a separate setting and their parents contacted and asked to have them brought home.
Parent Ann Marie Leiter was the first of many to speak about the issue. “You guys represent us and it seems like you aren’t really representing us very well. I understand that the governor is the one making these really awful decisions. Since your hands are tied by the governor, why don’t you guys pay for a bus (to protest in Trenton) and use our tax money and stand with us against this craziness?”
Referring to Discenza’s vote, Leiter added, “against your better judgement? Then vote no. My kid has asthma. I could get a doctor’s note. Maybe, maybe not because now everyone is running to the doctor. If we can go to a restaurant and walk in without a mask, I’m sure we all agree, why the hell are we making our kids and teachers wear a mask in the classrooms?”
Leiter added, “if you want them to wear a mask walking around – fabulous. Once they get into the classroom let them take it off. I don’t care how you all feel individually because it doesn’t really matter – it is about how you feel, we feel and we are all here tonight to tell you we don’t feel you making kids and teachers wearing a mask is right.”
Dr. Barbara Snyder a board-certified surgeon who said she has been practicing for over 40 years, questioned the science of the decision saying the short-term risks outweigh the benefits and that “this pandemic has been medically mismanaged from the start. It has weaponized the medical community against their patients.”
Resident Richard Bidnick called for the entire Board to resign based on their decision to which Peters pointed out that not everyone had voted for it. Bidnick said the Board took “the easy route. They are compliant. This Board is accountable to us. Don’t obey. There is civil disobedience.”
Lacey student Alexander Riley, 12, who will be entering the 7th grade said “I love going to school and I’ve been very tolerant of masks. I’m a straight A student and never cause trouble and I’m not about to start. The parents here pay a lot of taxes with the largest amount going to the schools but we have no say into the decisions being made. It makes no sense that you can walk into any restaurant with a mask over your face and your magic COVID shield only to sit down and take it off but we can’t do this in school starting next week.”
He added, “I don’t want to leave. I want to remain here with my friends for the rest of my school years but if this continues with you giving us no choice – and worse you give us no voice – I will ask my parents to withdraw (him from the school district) and I hope my friends will too. We will find a better place to live, learn and make a great memory. I ask you this, why should I stay?”
The crowd loudly applauded the boy’s remarks.