Elanco high school and middle school students return to Garden Spot for their first day of school on Monday, August 31, 2020.

While some Lancaster County school districts will begin strictly enforcing the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s school mask order next week, one school district is headed in the opposite direction.

Eastern Lancaster County School District is accepting a signed form from parents stating they are opting their children out of the mask requirement without a doctor’s note proving they have an allowable exception under the state’s order.

Like many school districts across the county, Elanco established a grace period for fully implementing the mask order to allow families to obtain the necessary medical documentation to exempt their children. The order, announced Sept. 2, went into effect Sept. 7, right after a holiday weekend.

But unlike most school districts that extended grace periods out of respect for families, Elanco has taken its enforcement of the order – or lack thereof – a step further.

Elanco’s grace period was initially supposed to end Monday. But this week, the school board, facing intense pressure from anti-mask residents, unanimously approved a new, significantly simpler, form – one that doesn’t require a doctor’s signature – for parents to fill out and submit by Friday.

Elanco not enforcing order

The form states: “I understand based on the Board’s action on September 13, 2021, that changed the Health and Safety plan to allow parent(s) and/or guardian(s), to complete an exception permission slip form from wearing a mask/ face covering during the 2021-2022 school year – I elect to invoke this exception.

“I understand by completing the exception form, I agree not to hold the District responsible for any adverse situation that I or my child may experience based on my decision.”

All a parent has to do to allow their kids to attend school unmasked is to sign the form and submit it to the building principal. Medical documentation is no longer needed.

The form’s approval went against Elanco Superintendent Bob Hollister’s recommendation that the school district begin following the order as it intends – that is, only those who have a doctor certify that they have health conditions or disabilities that would be exacerbated from wearing a mask should be exempt from it.

“My interpretation of the Department of Health’s order is different than perhaps the board’s interpretation,” Hollister told LNP | LancasterOnline on Friday. “I think we should be masked, both adults and learners.”

Based on students’ current mask-wearing practices, Hollister said he’s assuming a majority of the school district’s 3,000 students will be exempt from the order, as long as their parents submit the form on time.

Currently, students that show up without a mask don’t face discipline, Hollister said. Come Friday, if students without an exception form on file continue to attend without a mask, parents will be notified, he said. The next step hasn’t been determined, he said.

School board President Thomas Wentzel said Friday that the exception form was an attempt to assuage the concerns from many district parents who said they couldn’t get a doctor to sign an exception for their children. Some parents even offered money to school board members to cover potential legal costs, as school administrators and board members may be subject to lawsuits for not complying with the state’s order. The school board, however, refused.

Wentzel admitted he is concerned about possible ramifications, be it a lawsuit, fines or other penalties handed down from the state.

“Will we be made an example of?” he said. “I can’t say it’s not in the back of my mind.”

According to a notice the state Department of Education sent to a noncompliant school district on Sept. 8, each day a violation occurs may trigger a penalty under the Disease Prevention and Control Law, on which the school mask order is based. School board members may be charged for each student or staff member attending the school, the notice states.

Noncompliance from the school district, which was not identified publicly, could also violate certain federal legislation, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or Americans with Disabilities Act, for potentially preventing immunocompromised and other susceptible students from attending class.

In the Pequea Valley School District, the school board on Thursday voted to extend its grace period until Oct. 5. That was also against the superintendent’s recommendation.

Masking grace periods near end

Most school districts that offered initial grace periods, however, will begin to crack down on mask-wearing this week.

On Tuesday, Conestoga Valley School District Superintendent Dave Zuilkoski issued a strongly worded letter to families about mask compliance.

Beginning Monday, Zuilkoski wrote, if a student who is not exempt from the order arrives at school without a mask or face shield – which is listed in the order as an acceptable alternative – a mask will be provided to them. If they refuse to wear it, they will wait in the office while a parent is notified to pick them up.

If it happens a second time, he wrote, parents will, again, be notified to pick the student up, and the family will receive information regarding the school district’s online option, Conestoga Valley Virtual Academy.

On a third occurrence, “the child will be formally enrolled in CVVA, unless the parent or guardian has already enrolled the child in another off-campus school.”

At Cocalico School District, where the grace period ends Monday, “any non-exempt students who are not wearing a face covering will be reminded of the state-wide expectation and will be offered a face covering to use,” according to an update on the school district’s website. “Parents will be informed if a student does not comply.”

Manheim Central School District’s website states that when its grace period ends Monday, the district does not seek “to isolate or discipline learners as our first course of action.” However, “consequences may be implemented” if noncompliance continues.

Ephrata Area and Penn Manor school districts, whose grace periods also end next week, have also communicated with families that only exempt students will be able to attend school without a mask, though they didn’t outline specific repercussions.

Donegal School District’s grace period ends Sept. 27. According to a frequently asked questions page on its website, faculty and staff are expected to state the following when a nonexempt student arrives at school without a mask: “I notice that you are not wearing a face covering today. If you have one, please put it on. If you do not have one, would you like me to get one for you?”

Consistent refusal to wear a face covering without an exemption may result in a conversation with parents/guardians about alternate educational options, the FAQs state.

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