The Donegal school board, facing pressure from parents vehemently against government mask mandates, voted Thursday to extend its grace period for families seeking a medical exemption to the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s school mask order, which went into effect this week.
The decision mirrors those made by other school districts across the county. Most recently, Penn Manor and Pequea Valley school districts agreed to give families extra time to present a doctor’s note in order to let their children attend school without a mask.
Donegal parents will now have until Sept. 27 — a week later than the initial deadline — to present evidence that their child should be exempt from the school mask order, which all Pennsylvania school districts are expected to follow.
Pennsylvania Department of Education guidance states schools should treat requests the same way they would when determining whether a student is eligible under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which establishes a free appropriate public education for students with disabilities.
Mark O'Neill, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health, said earlier this week that schools "should follow the spirit and intent of the masking order and require students, teachers and staff to wear masks." Schools should follow the same protocols as they would implementing other directives concerning the health and safety of students, he said. Failing to do so could result in a lawsuit, he said.
The school mask order’s timing aligns with an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in Lancaster County.
Over the past week, the county’s three hospitals have had an average of 75 COVID-19 inpatients, up from 61 the previous week. On Wednesday, the patient count stood at 85, which was the most since late April.
From Aug. 25 to Sept. 5, the county had 19 COVID-19 deaths, up from just six in the preceding 12 days. On this pace, Lancaster County could be on track for 40 to 50 COVID-19 deaths in September. That’s more than the last three months combined.
An intense meeting
About 100 residents attended the Donegal school board meeting, which was moved to the Donegal High School auditorium to accommodate the anticipated crowd.
The school board's vote was 8-1, with Debra Sturgis casting the lone dissenting vote. It was unclear which board member voted against the measure, because the board did not perform a roll-call vote, and each board member was wearing a mask.
The vote came after an intense public comment period in which about two dozen residents spoke their mind about the mask requirement. The vast majority of commenters were against the mandate. Many of them expressed fear over government control, with one resident comparing the mask requirement to slavery and another saying the state will go after people’s guns if they get away with mandating masks in schools.
“The fearful rhetoric regarding COVID needs to stop. It’s just an (excuse) to enact government control,” JoAnna Stabeley said. “Do we want to be slaves or do we remember who we are as free Americans and fight back?”
“If we keep bowing to the knees of this government, they’re going to use the health officials to go after our Second Amendment rights, our guns,” Emmanuel Hoffer said.
Tom Jones, in the same vein, said the true issue at hand related to the school mask requirement is “the incremental loss of our personal freedom and individual sovereignty.” He said the government is requiring masks now. He guessed vaccinations are next. “Brace yourselves,” he said.
Jones received a standing ovation from the crowd when he concluded his speech.
Another resident said she’s received 310 signatures on a petition for Donegal to return to its original mask-optional approach.
There were several instances where people among the crowd interrupted the speaker, prompting Overlander to remind the person speaking to address the board, not the crowd. This happened particularly when pro-mask parents spoke up.
James Bouder, one of a select few residents who spoke in support of a mask requirement, implored the board to enforce the school mask order.
“We’re entering the realm of indisputability that masks are an important piece of ensuring the safety of our students, staff and faculty.”
During a brief board discussion on masks, board member Ron Melleby pulled the mask down to his chin and asked community members to “hang in there.”
“The government hasn’t placed us between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “They placed us under a rock. And, for the last 10 days, we have tried to navigate from under the rock.”
The Manheim Township school board also met Thursday, but masks were not a topic of discussion.