Spring Grove school board OKs mask mandate after row
Spring Grove Area’s school board on Monday approved a fall reopening plan that requires students and staff to wear masks or face shields.
The topic faced significant scrutiny last month when residents erupted in comments against the safety measure and two board members agreed with them — prompting a lengthy explanation of proper public comment decorum on Monday.
In June, school board member Doug White called the COVID-19 pandemic a "crock of s—." On Monday, he apologized for his language and said it was his own opinion and not representative of the board.
But both he and another outspoken board member, David Trettel, faced backlash for their opinions, even garnering a petition for their removal with 308 signatures as of Tuesday.
"The two board members encouraged the politicization of the health of not only our (Spring Grove) students and staff, but also that of our community as a whole," reads the Change.org petition.
It requested their removal as a way of assuring the community that the board recognizes science over political propaganda.
Trettel said Monday that's not how elections work — that board members cannot just be removed every time the public disagrees with them — and said his comments last month were misrepresented.
The media left out context for his stance against mask requirements — that top World Health Organization official Maria Van Kerkhove said asymptomatic spread was rare, he said.
Kerkhove later walked back her comments, but Trettel said his point in bringing it up was to show how health guidance rapidly changes and cannot be counted upon to inform decisions.
On Monday, White and Trettel were the only two votes in opposition to the district's reopening plan, which includes requirements that students and staff wear masks. Their opposition was based only on grounds of its uncertainty and inconsistent information flowing from the state, they said.
Trettel said it was hypocritical for athletic plans to allow students to swap sweat in close contact sports, creating a "perfect storm for COVID," and have so many restrictions on in-school activities.
“I have a problem with that,” he said.
State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine and the Pennsylvania Department of Education, however, have noted that the governor's mask order does apply to school sports, with some exceptions, if players are less than 6 feet apart.
The board voted on the safety portion separately. An operational plan for reopening and a schedule change pushing school back a week to allow for staff professional development were approved unanimously.
Before the vote, a packed room of more than 100 attendees in the high school cafeteria — and many more tuning in online — argued for and against the mask requirement.
PDE noted recently that all health and safety plans need to be updated to reflect the governor's universal mask order, but some residents on Monday were under the impression that the order was a guideline, not a mandate.
Some residents agreed with Trettel that state guidance was "all over the place" and doing more harm than good, teaching students to live in fear while ignoring mental health concerns and upticks in abuse, suicides and overdoses.
"We are the Spring Grove Rockets," said resident Travis Shearer, referring to the district's mascot, "and not the Harrisburg jacka—es."
Others residents said children could also be taught not to fear masks with the support of educators, and though science is "messy" and changes, airing on the side of science is better, especially since schools are responsible and liable for children's safety.
"If you want to play in a field of thumbtacks, that's fine," said resident Damion Crawford, referring to what residents can do at home, "but when it comes to the safety of the children, the school staff are the ones who are responsible and will bear witness."
Superintendent George Ioannidis noted he was looking at face shields to account for those who needed aid in lip reading and younger students who thrive on reading expressions.
With social distancing, students will also be given the chance to have intermittent breaks from masks or shields, as per board member Rachel Rohrbaugh’s question.
Many criticized the district for a plan that was too vague for them to make a decision on returning to school — par for the course in districts so far — but Ioannidis said the plan was designed to be flexible and updated.
He plans to have the board vote on Aug. 10 to authorize him to make updates as necessary, which might even include dropping masks if state guidance changes. Until then, however, a plan must be approved if parents want students back in classrooms.
"We are going to have to give up something short term to get the long-term dividend," he said.