Mandate Debate

After heated community discussion, Governor Wolf settles mask question


Staff Photo

Spring-Ford juniors (from left) Vanesa Calvario, Chris deHaan, Lily Smith and Luca Carboy get ready for class Nov. 30. Students have been required to wear face masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by order of Gov. Tom Wolf.

Ally McVey , Managing Editor

Spectators made their way to the Spring-Ford High School cafeteria the evening of August 16, 2021 carrying homemade posters and refreshments, and the heated chatter of hundreds of attendees gave the night the feel of a high-stakes sporting event.

One would be surprised to learn, however, that this event was a mid-August school board meeting.

Few topics could inject such tension into meetings usually characterized as comically boring affairs, but the debate over masks accomplished this feat and then some.

On the agenda sat an elusive statement from the board, declaring their adoption of a “mask recommended” policy for the coming school year. And while the sentiments of community members on this issue varied greatly — and still do today — they were all equal in passion.

Public comment ensued, with parents and students making their emotional three-minute pleas to the board about the importance of wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 or the right of parents and students to make their own masking decisions. Each comment was punctuated with jeers of celebration or incredulous booing from opposition, reminding each board member of the monumental implications their vote would have on community morale. They did not know, however, that these hours of heated deliberation would soon be nullified by Governor Tom Wolf’s statewide mask mandate weeks later.

“I ask that we all keep ourselves in check,” urged School Board President Colleen Zasowski, “and not scream into the microphone or behave in an unorderly way.”

Despite the board’s efforts, there were many moments during the night where the tension building in the cafeteria threatened to topple any semblance of order.

“It was not a good environment,” said Siena Johnson, a student at Spring-Ford High School who made public comment at the meeting. “The fact that there had to be police officers on campus, and that those police officers had to be used, is terrifying.”

The board faced three options as to the masking of students. One plan was a completely “mask-optional” policy, where no student could be compelled to wear a face covering while in school. The second was, naturally, a “mask-required” policy, where students would be required to wear masks while inside the building during the day, unless they provided a valid medical excuse. The third option, however, was far less straightforward — the “mask-recommended” policy would still allow students to choose whether or not to wear a mask in school, but would implement a district-wide survey to track who was or who was not opting to wear a mask for contact-tracing purposes. This option also allowed the board to publicly assume a pro-mask ideology without actually enforcing it in schools – which could, in theory, please all community members.

Anxiety in the cafeteria mounted as the board prepared to vote on the proposed masking policy. In a 5-4 decision, the board approved the linguistically forceful but practically limited recommendation, which was met with whoops from the crowd.

The board’s decision came as the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus, a strain more contagious and deadly than the original, increased throughout the country. And as students began to pack the halls of Spring-Ford buildings in mass numbers, they were accompanied by a looming sense of wariness.
“Compared to last year, it’s a lot more crowded,” Johnson said of her experience returning to school this year.

This apprehension soon made its way to the office of Governor Wolf, who decided to take forceful action on the mandatory-mask issue despite his power over emergency mandates being tempered by recent amendments to the Pennsylvania Constitution. Wolf was adamant about the decision, which was implemented two weeks into the school year by Health Secretary Alison Beam.
“Doing nothing right now to stop COVID-19, that’s just not an option,” urged Wolf. “Our community and our commonwealth are in a different place than we were just a month ago. And our students need our help to stay safe and stay in school.”

And thus, on Tuesday, Sept. 8, the statewide mask mandate took effect,
negating the hours of deliberations between the school board and community members from weeks prior. Spring-Ford students and teachers, though, largely took the masking changes in stride.

“Students have handled the responsibility well,” said Dr. Robert Colyer, 10-12 building principal, of the statewide mask mandate. “I look forward for that to continue for as long as it needs to.”

Court challenges of the mandate persist across the state, and Wolf announced his intention to lift the commonwealth’s K-12 school mask requirement to local leaders on Jan. 17 of 2022.

“The school mask order has been critical in ensuring Pennsylvania’s children could safely learn and grow in an in-person classroom setting at the beginning of the school year,” said Gov. Wolf via press release.

While many Spring-Ford students and parents disagree with the requiring of masks in schools, there is still an overall hopeful atmosphere to the prospect of an uninterrupted, in-person school year.

“All of our activities are running, and there has been great turn-out at our athletic events,” Dr. Colyer said enthusiastically. “I think the morale is good, and our students are able to access the experiences and events they are most used to.”