Emotions ran high Tuesday as Lancaster County school districts began adhering to the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s order requiring all individuals wear masks in schools.
Some school districts saw protests from parents and heated debate at school board meetings packed with hundreds of passionate residents.
School officials across the county said the actual school day, though, went smoothly, for the most part, as the vast majority of students arrived at school with masks on and just a few students weren’t compliant. Among those who didn’t arrive with a mask, some simply forgot one, and others had a valid medical exemption allowed under the state order.
There were some students who outright did not comply with the mask order. How those students were handled varied by school district. Some were lenient on enforcement Tuesday, as schools are still figuring out who has valid medical exemptions and who doesn’t.
Others were more strict. Elizabethtown Area School District, for example, offered a mask to a student who came to school without one, but if that student declined to wear it, that student was sent to the office and picked up by a parent — or, if that wasn’t possible, separated from classroom activities for the day — according to school district spokesperson Troy Portser.
Elizabethtown Area was one of at least two school districts that saw demonstrations related to masks Tuesday morning, but school officials said they remained peaceful. About 40 people marched outside the high school chanting and holding signs, “sharing their opinions on masking,” Portser said. Other than that, he said, students went through the school day like any other typical day.
On Monday, mask protesters gathered at Elizabethtown Borough Community Park. Organizers urged parents who opposed the mask requirement to keep their kids out of school and enroll them in a cybercharter school. Portser said he was not aware of any significant impact on attendance.
At Solanco School District, a group of parents traveled to each school to make their voices on masking heard, Superintendent Brian Bliss said. Anywhere from 12 to 50 parents, some there to submit their mask exemption forms, visited each school, Bliss said.
A video posted to Facebook on Tuesday showed parents holding up signs outside of Providence Elementary School. Someone who was identified on social media as the principal came outside and asked the group to stay off school property. The person who posted the video told a reporter that he didn’t want to be quoted in the newspaper.
“There are a number of parents that are upset about the mask requirement, so we continue to search for productive dialogue, find common ground,” Bliss said. “Admittedly, the common ground is a bit challenging, but we’re talking with each parent we can. We’re having conversations, hearing what they have to say.”
The school mask order’s timing aligns with a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths in Lancaster County.
As LNP | LancasterOnline reported Friday, the county averaged about 170 new cases per day and 64 COVID-19 patients in its hospitals last week.
Following a 13-day stretch in early August without a single COVID-19 death in Lancaster County, the month of August finished with 18 deaths. On Aug. 31, four people died of COVID-19. That marked the first time since April 22 that four people died of COVID-19 here in one day.
Crowded board meetings
Still, many Lancaster County parents are upset. One can look no further than the crowded school board meetings held Tuesday night to see that.
For instance, about 70 people attended the Hempfield school board meeting. About half of them were not wearing masks — including board member Dylan Bard.
The meeting started with an announcement from board President Mike Donato, saying the district, like all other county school districts, is compelled to follow the order. He said parents who oppose the order can contact their state legislator, Gov. Tom Wolf or the state Department of Health.
At least 17 residents spoke, with about half urging the school board to defy the order and keep the district’s original mask-optional policy in place.
One of them was parent Stacy Hernandez, who said requiring masks is child abuse and implored the school board to act against the state, no matter the consequences.
“Freedom is never free, and we would never have this country if our forefathers laid down like a lot of you are doing,” she said. “What’s it going to be? Stand up and hold up your oath, or sit down and cower?”
Joelle Rajkowski expressed how proud she was of her daughter, who “boldly walked into school without her mask.”
“She was inspiring others to stand up for their constitutional right to breathe fresh air,” she said.
On the other side, there were several doctors advocating the benefits of masks and asking the board to adhere to the state’s mask order to prevent more children from being hospitalized with COVID-19 and potentially experiencing traumatic, long-term effects. Those supporting masks asked the board to keep children’s health and safety first, as they did last year by adhering to the state mask mandate.
“Rational, science-based decisions” may be unpopular nowadays, said Dr. Melissa Sasso, with Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, but it is “ultimately courageous.”
Another doctor with LG Health, Dr. Heidi Kistler, compared wearing masks to wearing a seat belt. It’s not comfortable or fun to wear a seat belt, she said, but people follow the law because they want to protect themselves, she said.
“Ignoring the risk will only increase the risk,” she said.
At Warwick, about 200 people attended a school board meeting Tuesday night. Two had to be removed by police. The majority of residents who addressed the board wanted masks to remain optional.
Motions to go against the state’s order were tabled until Sept. 16.
More than 100 Pequea Valley School District residents attended a standing-room-only meeting Tuesday night. About two-thirds wanted the district to keep masks optional.
— Correspondents Laura Knowles and Emily Jones contributed to this story.