Two Lancaster County school districts agreed to allow students to attend school without a mask even if their families have not provided medical documentation proving their child should be exempt from the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s school mask order, which went into effect this week.
The Penn Manor school board voted 8-1 to approve a grace period ending Sept. 21, and the Pequea Valley school board agreed, without a vote, to a grace period ending Sept. 16. The decisions came during meetings Tuesday night.
School officials with both districts said the decisions are not meant to violate the state’s order, but to give families adequate time to see a doctor and retrieve the necessary paperwork proving their child has an eligible health condition or disability to be exempt from wearing a mask in school.
Administrators at both districts, therefore, are temporarily accepting notes from parents, rather than medical professionals, stating their child is exempt.
“The Acting Secretary of Health (Alison Beam) dropped this order on us right before a holiday,” Penn Manor school board President Herk Rintz told LNP | LancasterOnline on Wednesday. “To me, it is unreasonable to expect parents, on a holiday weekend, to get an appointment with the doctor.”
Rintz said the board’s intention is to comply with the state’s order, but he believes it is reasonable to allow families time to get a doctor’s note.
The order states eight allowable exemptions, ranging from when students eat, drink or play an instrument to when a mask would cause or exacerbate an existing health condition or disability.
On Friday, before the holiday weekend, the Pennsylvania Department of Education issued guidance regarding how to handle what was expected to be a massive surge of exemption requests. Penn Manor School District Superintendent Mike Leichliter said his district has received about 300 so far.
The 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 Wednesday 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.
Time constraints and anger
Leichliter on Wednesday said making determinations on each exemption request will be extremely time-consuming. This puts school districts in a tough spot, Leichliter said. If the order came in the beginning of August, it wouldn’t be as much of a concern, he said.
“We’re trying to focus on learning and education and establishing important routines, but, right now, our principals are spending their time documenting medical needs,” Leichliter said.
Penn Manor school board Vice President Joseph Fullerton, the only board member to vote against the motion, declined to comment, saying Rintz is the board’s point of contact. Mitchell Sweigart, who made the motion, declined to comment for the same reason.
At Pequea Valley, the board agreed on a grace period despite school district Superintendent Erik Orndorff’s recommendation that they move forward adhering to the mandate. Orndorff said Wednesday he agreed to the grace period because he understands it could be difficult to obtain a doctor’s note in such little time.
“We always hear that we can’t make everybody happy,” Orndorff said. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t try. But this one is the toughest one I’ve ever faced, because there’s a lot of anger involved.”
Both the Penn Manor and Pequea Valley school board meetings featured heated debate over mask requirements. More than 200 people attended Penn Manor’s meeting, and more than 100 attended Pequea Valley’s. The majority of those who addressed both boards were in favor of a mask-optional approach.
“God told us to fast, not wear a mask,” Penn Manor resident Katrina Smith said at the meeting.
Gary Warmiak, a fifth grader at Paradise Elementary School in Pequea Valley, told the board that masks make it hard to focus on school “when you’re too focused on both being able to breathe or making sure your mask is on.”
As for how Penn Manor and Pequea Valley will handle mask exemptions when their grace periods end, that’s to be determined, Leichliter and Orndorff said, citing the need to consult with their solicitors and plan a long-term approach.
— Correspondents Emily Jones and Luis Nieves contributed to this story.