Manheim Township school board

The Manheim Township school board meets Monday night, Nov. 15, 2021. 

The Manheim Township school board on Monday night voted to maintain their current mask policy during a special meeting that lasted more than three and a half hours. 

The board voted 7-2, with Republicans Stephen Grosh and April Weaver dissenting, to stick with a health and safety plan that required masks even if the Pennsylvania Supreme Court chooses to throw out the state’s school mask order.

It’s unclear, however, how long that decision will last.

“The elephant in the room is we’re going to have four new board members very soon,” Grosh said.

The board will shift from a 7-2 Democratic majority to a 6-3 GOP majority on Dec. 6 after major Republican gains in this month’s municipal election. So, in a few weeks, the new board could reverse the current board’s decision and make masks optional.

Of the seven board members in favor of Monday night's motion, only three will remain on the board in December. 

The vote came about three hours into a special meeting held in Convocation Hall at Manheim Township High School solely to discuss the district's health and safety plan. 

After about two dozen residents spoke up about masks during the meeting’s public comment section, board members spent about two hours discussing how it would handle masks if the mask order is voided by the Supreme Court prior to the order’s scheduled expiration, set by Gov, Tom Wolf, on Jan. 17, 2022.

No board member on Monday expressed a desire to go against the order while it remains active. While the Commonwealth Court threw out the order last week, Acting Pennsylvania Secretary of Health notified the state Supreme Court of an appeal within hours of that decision, triggering an automatic stay, meaning the order was back in place -- for now.

School district solicitor Bob Frankhouser said it was in the board’s best interest to follow the mandate as long as it’s valid. Board members agreed and made it clear that the masking options they would be voting on would take place after the order is no longer in effect.

The board discussed five different options, ranging from making masks optional districtwide to requiring masks only when students are up and moving, meaning students would be able to remove their masks sitting at their desks.

By a 5-4 vote, the board voted down an option that would have made masks optional for students in grades 7-12 on Jan. 3, 2022, right after the winter break, then districtwide Jan. 18, 2022, after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. That option also would have made masks optional in gym class.

The board then approved the second option, which made no changes to the health and safety plan and kept masks mandatory districtwide.

School board President Nikki Rivera and Vice President Joyce Stephens were strong proponents of the option the board first voted on.

Rivera said she teaches in a mask every day and hates it, but she wants schools to stay open. Her solution: make masks optional, but only after giving students -- especially younger students who just became eligible -- time to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Other board members, like JoAnn Hentz, also stressed the importance of getting vaccinated, and giving parents time to ensure their children are fully vaccinated. She and others pointed out that process takes several weeks.

“We are looking at parents counting the days on the calendar until their kids are fully vaccinated,” Hentz said, adding that the district is so close to putting the pandemic behind them.

Not everyone agreed, however. Board member Terrance Henderson said he wasn’t sure why the board would even consider taking away the mask requirement.

“The mask mandate is not the enemy,” he said. “The pandemic is the enemy. The enemy is still here.”

Residents in attendance -- 30 or so -- were also divided.

Renne Engle, a parent and Manheim Township Middle School reading teacher, asked the board to keep masks required to protect students and employees.

“A year ago, (Manheim Township Middle School counselor) Alex Chitwood died of COVID,” she said. “She was younger than I am. God help us if a child dies and we could’ve done the simplest thing.”

David Lang, a physicians assistant, said masks are the “least onerous” way to protect kids. Midway through his remarks, he caught Grosh seemingly not paying attention. “Am I boring you, sir?” he asked.

Grosh appeared caught off guard, but Rivera interjected and told Lang to address any questions to her.

Many residents challenged the efficacy of masks -- a strategy that doctors nationwide have touted as one of the ways to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Other parents against the mask mandate implored the board to make masks optional because it was harming their kids emotionally and in the classroom.

“For some people, there are consequences, there are ill effects that result in wearing masks,” Patricia Morris said, citing headaches and heightened anxiety.

Gianna Smith, a high school senior, said she’s tired of wearing a mask all day and seeing her classmates get called out by teachers for pulling their masks down.

“If people are getting COVID,” she said, “then they should wear a mask or go online.”

Andrew Woods, another high school student, said he had COVID-19, and it took weeks to get caught up in his classes once he returned to school.

“If I can wear my mask to help prevent other people to go through that,” he said, “then I think that, alone, is enough to warrant mask mandates.”

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