Northcentral Pa. -- For decades serving on a school board was seen as a prestigious community position. While there is no pay involved, it’s an elected position, not only integral to an area’s present academic identity, but also invaluable to the future vibrancy of the district.
Nowadays, with ever-changing state mandates regarding Covid-19 policies, these local leaders are coming under constant fire from parents and community members who are demanding local boards override the mandates and install their own policies.
At least one local board is even facing a lawsuit. “Personally, I am ‘mask optional,’” said Montoursville school board member Bill Ruffing, who himself has been named in the suit brought against his board.
“But I voted to adhere to the mandate because I felt the consequences of overriding it had the potential to be severe.”
The issue is complex…and murky.
First, the constant debate on mask effectiveness rages on. There are numerous published articles that support masks, while others claim they are essentially worthless in protecting the spread of Covid-19.
What everyone seems to agree on are the inconsistencies in which these masking rules are applied. On school buses and in classrooms, masks are required, but in gym class, band practice, and lunch, they are not. And while it’s understood that it’s essentially impossible to eat a meal, or play certain instruments while wearing a mask, it’s also fair to ask how affective the overall mask policy is.
One side essentially saying, ‘if the kids don’t wear masks all the time, why wear them at all?’ While the other side retorts with ‘some of the time is better than none of the time.’
Couple that with society’s mixed signals and the situation gets even cloudier. On Tuesday, the Borough of State College passed a mandate saying masks were mandatory inside all borough establishments.
Masks are required in all borough businesses, public indoor facilities, or other public buildings, for anyone two years or older, according to an ordinance developed by the State College Board of Health (SCBOH).
Violations are strict, potentially resulting in a $300 fine.
They pass this knowing full well that more than 100,000 maskless people will cram into Beaver Saturday this Saturday night when Penn State hosts Auburn in one of the nation’s marquee college football games of the weekend.
Related reading: Two Williamsport schools go remote
In school board meetings held Monday, both South Williamsport and Muncy voted to make masks optional with a parent's signature, essentially disregarding the state’s mandate. Less than 24 hours later, Williamsport temporarily closed two elementary schools because of high covid positive rates and will teach the students of Jackson Primary and Lycoming Valley Intermediate on a remote basis, at least until next week.
“As a board member, we take an oath, and our job is to keep the teachers and the kids safe,” said Lori Baer, Williamsport School Board member. “We have about 1,600 students in our high school. On the first day of the mask mandate, we had about 30 who refused. They were told ‘it’s your choice if don’t want to wear a mask, but if you don’t wear it, you’ll have to go home. We had about 10 students leave. That’s 10 out of 1,600.”
The most consistent claim from the “mask optional” crowd is that parents should get to make the choices regarding their children.
But the “mask supporters" point out that in many instances, established laws are set dictating many aspects of children’s lives above and beyond parental control.
And the debate goes round and round.
One aspect that cannot be debated is the lack of civility taking place during the meetings. Board members and school administrators throughout the region talk of hearing profanity and being screamed at on a regular basis. Also, citizens speaking at public meetings are often booed.
“The ugliness displayed at these meetings has been eye-opening and disheartening,” said one school board member from a northcentral Pa. school district who asked to remain anonymous. “The extreme people, no matter what side they are on, are sure they are right, and they can’t possibly believe there can be another way.”
“I like having the meetings on zoom,” Ruffing said. “We get better attendance than we do in person, and I’ve had many people tell me they’re intimidated by the hostility of the crowds, and they appreciate being able to watch…and sometimes speak…anonymously on zoom.”
So what is the goal?
“Keeping kids in school,” said a northcentral Pa. school teacher who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Most kids don’t learn as well remotely, especially elementary kids. We have to do whatever it takes to keep the schools open, and if it’s masks, then so be it.”
According to a Stanford University study, reading skills stalled during the pandemic, stating ‘second-and third-graders were most affected. Overall, students’ reading fluency in second and third grade is now approximately 30 percent behind what would be expected in a typical year.’
Brian Persing, president of the Shamokin Area School Board, shows even another side of the sacrifice these board members make. A self-employed mason, Persing used to do contract work for the district, but now he is ineligible due to his position on the board.
“It was a conscious decision I made,” Persing said. “I knew being on the board would cost me school contracts and hurt my business, but it was a trade-off I was willing to make because, as a board member, I felt like I could contribute to the community.”
Persing is vaccinated. Like many others, he’s unsure of the mask’s effectiveness, but thinks the district has no choice but to follow along with the mandate.
“I might think I’m a great driver and can safely drive 90 miles per hour down the highway, but if a cop sees me, I’m getting pulled over because I broke the rules. Right now, the state mandate says ‘masks in schools.’ Those are the rules and we have to follow them.”
Unfortunately, it appears the local discord will rage on for the foreseeable future.