Spring Grove faces reopening plan vote following state mask mandate

York attorney Dawn Cutaia, a quilting enthusiast, has turned her talents to making masks and donating them to hospitals and medical professionals in an effort to help them stay safer as they fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Spring Grove Area's school board is expected to vote on its fall reopening plan Monday, following new state guidance mandating masks for students and staff.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education updated guidance this week to reflect Gov. Tom Wolf's universal mask order, seemingly putting to rest any debate over whether the practice should be optional in schools.

The issue was hotly debated in Spring Grove this past month, with one parent presenting a petition with 400 signatures demanding masks be optional.

Two board members chimed in, agreeing with the public, though they noted the safety of students was a priority.

More:Spring Grove school board member: COVID-19 pandemic 'a crock of sh--'

When reached via email Thursday, PDE spokesperson Eric Levis said the updated guidance came out of a need to slow the increase of COVID-19 cases and avoid a resurgence like those currently overwhelming health systems in other states.

In Pennsylvania, total cases since the outbreak were at 93,876 and deaths were at 6,880 as of noon Friday. York County is at 1,791 total cases and 61 deaths.

States such as California, Arizona and Texas are seeing cases spiking in record numbers, according to The COVID Tracking Project. And spike in Allegheny County has been driving up statewide numbers and resulted in a new local lockdown.

More:Cases spike in Sunbelt, other states back off on reopening

The guidance for Pennsylvania schools applies to all entities, including K-12, cyber and brick-and-mortar charters, private and parochial, technical centers and intermediate units.

When reached Thursday, Spring Grove Superintendent George Ioannidis would not reveal specifics of his reopening plan, but he said following PDE and health requirements within the plan is crucial.

But on Friday the district posted an update confirming that its proposed plan for a full reopening includes a mandate that all staff, students and bus drivers wear face coverings, with consideration for exceptions.

Physical distancing would also be practiced to the extent possible, including alternative bus runs and seating, according to the update.

"The focus is on meeting our requirements," Ioannidis said.

Though that has been challenging, he added, his district will be as flexible as possible to meet the needs of families who have concerns about returning to school.

In a recent staff survey with 348 responses, a majority of staff members were willing to wear masks but were fairly split on whether staff and students wearing them would ease their comfort level.

For any students uncomfortable returning, the district has a K-12 distance learning program that will more closely resemble a traditional school year.

Spring Grove is not the only district that has been torn between adhering to health and state guidance and the perceived practicality and safety of those restrictions.

Central York, West York Area and Red Lion Area were among the first districts in the county to approve reopening plans, and none has required masks for both students and staff.

Red Lion requires them for staff and older students, when "appropriate," its plan notes.

More:With little state input, school officials grapple with reopening plans

According to PDE's updated guidance, these districts will now have to reapprove their plans and submit them again to the state to reflect the new order.

The debate on masks had centered on lack of guidance from PDE — which districts now have — the safety of prolonged use and hindrance of learning.

Central Superintendent Michael Snell said it might be difficult for staff to teach and talk with masks on, and Central board member Veronica Gemma questioned the safety of athletes wearing them during sports.

PDE addressed some of these concerns in the updated guidance, noting that students can remove them if they are distanced at least 6 feet apart, and those with respiratory issues, mental or physical disabilities, or medical conditions would be exempt.

For those uncomfortable or impeded by masks, face shields that cover the nose and mouth are also acceptable.

However, areas such as sports still seem to be open to interpretation. 

For example, athletes are not required to wear face coverings "while actively engaged in workouts and competition" that prevent wearing them, but it's unclear what would fall under that category.

President Donald Trump has said he fears health guidelines will impede the reopening of schools full time — and even threatened on Wednesday to pull federal funding if that happens.

But in York County, a full reopening is still a priority among districts. Despite the challenges, those who have discussed plans have all chosen or expressed preference for students returning full time in the fall.

"All of us in the district want to bring our students back to school full time and on schedule," Ioannidis said. "That’s been our guiding star."