Solanco school board meeting

Solanco School District Superintendent Brian Bliss addresses a large crowd during a school board meeting in the Smith Middle School auditorium Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. 

Several Lancaster County school boards faced intense pressure on Monday to defy the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s order requiring universal mask wearing in schools.

One school board couldn’t even start its meeting due to residents not complying with the mask requirement.

The Octorara Area school board voted 5-3 to postpone its meeting after more than half of the about 40 residents in attendance refused to wear a mask, despite school board President Brian Fox reminding them to adhere to the mask rule. About 30 unmasked residents lingered to address the board.

“Scare tactics are being used to control the board,” mother Kathy Greig said. “We are free to come into a public place without a mask, and this is a public place.”

The meeting will now take place over the videoconferencing platform Zoom Tuesday at 7 p.m.

Cutler steps in

At the Solanco school board meeting Monday, hundreds of residents showed up to back the board’s initial decision to reopen schools with masks optional. Almost no one in the audience wore a mask, despite a sign on the doors of Smith Middle School, where the meeting was held, saying masks were required. Board members Kurt Kreider and Justin Kreider did not wear one, either.

Before the meeting, Republican state House Speaker Bryan Cutler, who lives in the district and also did not wear a mask, tried to redirect the crowd’s frustration over masks from the school board to the governor and the state Department of Health.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, Cutler said, has caused tension within communities after rescinding local control amid rising COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations here and throughout the state.

“I don’t think central control from Harrisburg is really the direction any of us want to go,” Cutler said, prompting a “Nope!” from the crowd.

Cutler said a solution will likely play out either in the courts or through a referendum — not at a school board meeting. That process, he said, undoubtedly takes time.

Solanco Superintendent Brian Bliss followed Cutler’s speech with a presentation describing where the district is with masks and how to come to a solution. Bliss urged the community to unify and heal in order to create a smooth school year for students. A significant number of middle and high school students are still refusing to wear masks, he said.

“We are having trouble running our schools,” he said. “My principals are buckling right now.”

Residents swiftly lined up for the opportunity to address the board.

John Garver, a Solanco parent and local police officer, said his kids were exhausted coming home from a full day of masking up at school. He urged the board to “explore every creative option” to allow children to attend school without a mask.

Weston Beiler, a Solanco High School junior, said he should have the choice whether to wear a mask in school.

“I have no problem with the kid sitting next to me wearing a mask,” he said. “Just give me that choice whether or not to mask up.”

Beiler added what many in the audience also questioned: “If we comply with this mandate, what will the next mandate look like?”

After only a few public comments, the power went out, leaving the school board and attendees in total darkness for a few minutes. Many residents shuffled out after that, but the majority stayed once the power turned back on.

‘Held accountable’

At least 150 people attended the Ephrata Area school board meeting Monday night. Most were without masks.

Parent Josh Roberts said the community must “stand up and take a stand against this mandate.”

A pro-mask parent, Suzy Wurtz, expressed concern for her children’s safety.

“As a parent, it’s difficult, it’s really hard to send my kids to school every day knowing that the schools might not keep them safe and are not doing what they can to keep them safe,” she said. “I'm here tonight as a parent wanting to make sure my kids have a safe learning experience, and I want the school board to be held accountable.”

— LNP | LancasterOnline correspondents Marcella Peyre-Ferry and Sara Melissa Frost contributed to this report.

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