Pennsylvania School Administrators Say They Are Stuck in the Middle of Mask Debate

By Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Reporter
Beth Brelje is an investigative journalist covering Pennsylvania politics, courts, and the commonwealth’s most interesting and sometimes hidden news. Send her your story ideas:
September 23, 2021 Updated: September 23, 2021

Pennsylvania School administrators are trapped in the middle of the school mask debate and need better communication from the state Department of Health. That was the testimony Thursday during a hearing of the Senate Education Committee that explored the impact of the Department of Health’s order requiring masking of students and children at schools and daycare centers.

“Have you ever tried to put a mask on a 2-year-old and have them wear it all day? How about 10-minutes without them touching it? Often times bodily fluids from their nose and mouth soak the mask and it ends up being a suction cup to their face,” Jessica Daugherty, director of Lititz Christian Early Learning Center testified. “It becomes more contaminated with germs than if they had nothing on at all.”

The center aims to partner with parents and support their wishes when children are in the center’s care, Daugherty said. But the mask mandate cripples the relationship between parents and the center by forcing the center to enforce the mandate.

“I was appalled at the level this administration would go to, to control the level at which masks are worn,” Daugherty testified, recalling when she received notice of the mandate from the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning. “Not only did the choice of wearing a mask get taken away from the parent, but the obligation of requiring that mask was placed on the childcare provider.”

The notice gives the center the choice of complying with the mandate or risk losing its license to operate. The order is not optional and failure to comply will lead to an initial citation for non-compliance, with a 10-day window to come into compliance or have your license downgraded to provisional. That would result in the inability to apply for or receive the Child Care Stabilization Grant. Continued non-compliance would result in an emergency removal order.

‘It’s About Control’

“Honestly, this is no longer about masks; it’s about control. Who has it? Not the parents,” Daugherty said. “If we do not make some changes, the rope of freedom we now know will grow shorter, and the children we are providing quality care for will only know control without choices.”

Barry Fillman, administrative director at Jefferson County-Dubois Area Vocational-Technical School testified that ordinarily, families show up at board meetings or have conversations with educators and they work together to resolve problems, but that is not how it works with the mask mandate.

“The people in education have little control over what happened when this fire was lit. And then threats from the government pile on to an already intense situation. You should realize this,” Fillman said. “Great people are being pushed to a breaking point. The only thing that can solve this is for people from both sides to get together and actually work together and figure out a way to involve families instead of driving them out. Pushing parents out of the process with a poorly written, ill-timed mandate and then stoking their pain without actually solving their grievance is taking its toll.”

Just as schools were starting this fall, Pennsylvania’s acting Health Secretary Alison Beam issued an order effective Sept. 7 requiring masks to be worn inside K-12 school buildings, early learning programs, and childcare providers. Before that, schools had been told they were to determine their own rules at the local level. The mandate caught many schools by surprise.

“We as school administrators have been put in a position to absorb everything that politics creates, and it’s breaking the will of decent, loving people,” Fillman said. “We work so hard to build trust with all of our stakeholders, especially with our families, and I’m begging you to stop pitting us against one another at every level.”

Michael Bromiriski, superintendent of the Hempfield School District said schools are getting less interaction with the Department of Health compared to last year, and that schools have been doing the department’s work, including case investigation work, contact tracing, communications with parents and guardians, quarantining students and staff, issuing isolation directives and reporting COVID-19 cases.

Last-Minute Changes

Yet a day before school was to start, Bromiriski told The Epoch Times the school received word from the Department of Health that “Schools do not issue quarantine or isolation directives, but rather assist Department of Health staff with identifying close contacts.”

The department said CDC guidance would serve as public health best practices for schools. Schools are not required to follow the CDC guidance, but it is strongly encouraged.

The school wanted some clarifications because it was already getting pushback from parents about their authority to mandate masks and quarantines, Bromiriski testified. The department responded that any close contact to a COVID-19 case would receive a legally binding quarantine order from the state.

The school asked what they should tell parents, and suggested “As a close contact, we have provided your contact information to the Department of Health and someone from the Department of Health will be in touch with quarantine information.” The department said that was a perfect response, Bromirski said.

But parents are not receiving quarantine information from the Department of Health.

“Parents look to us and wonder why we can exclude their children from school, because the Department of Health has not contacted them,” Bromiriski said. “We are attempting to abide by the directions we have been given by the Department of Health, but they are not following through in their stated responsibilities.”

The current mask mandate was ordered after many schools already opened with a mask optional policy.

“To say this changed caused an extreme amount of anger, frustration and volatility in our communities is an understatement.” Bromiriski said educators are being threatened. “In the span of one day, I was informed that I could be arrested if I followed the order and if I didn’t follow the order. Our communities are divided, and the faith in public education is diminishing.”

Lack of Communication

When the mandate was ordered, Bromiriski said, the Department of Education sent schools an email address to use for communication.

“But email limits the ability to truly communicate and it does not allow for meaningful dialogue that brings about clarity and understanding about information that must be interpreted and ultimately enforced,” Bromirski said. School leaders began requesting meetings with the Department of Health and the Department of Education to get clarity on some of the details in the mandate but could not get a meeting until an unexpected 15-minute conversation with a Department of Health policy person, on Wednesday, the day before the hearing.

“I don’t have a way, other than sending emails or leaving phone messages, to get in touch with anybody at the Department of Health,” Bromiriski, said.

The Departments of Health and Education were both asked to attend the hearing but did not because the mask mandate is being challenged in court, said Republican Senator Scott Martin who organized the hearing.

“The Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) and the Department of Education (PDE) are continuously communicating with schools about the constantly evolving response to COVID-19,” Department of Health Deputy Press Secretary Maggi Barton told The Epoch Times in an email.

“As such, DOH has offered one-on-one support with numerous schools throughout the pandemic, prior to and during the 2021-2022 school year. Including just yesterday, when the PDE shared the following resources created by DOH with all schools: additional guidance to support schools with responding to COVID-19 cases and outbreaks in schools,” Barton said.

This guidance includes two flowcharts—“What to Do When There’s a Positive COVID Case” and “How to Respond to a COVID-19 Outbreak”—for quick access to managing cases. “More specific detail on isolation, quarantining, and case investigations are available on the PDE website,” Barton said. “DOH is committed to providing information to school districts and will continue to work with the school districts and sister agencies on these important issues.”

Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Reporter
Beth Brelje is an investigative journalist covering Pennsylvania politics, courts, and the commonwealth’s most interesting and sometimes hidden news. Send her your story ideas: