by Christen Smith
A number of Pennsylvania educators said Thursday the Department of Health hands down COVID-19 mitigation orders and doesn’t back them up when it comes to enforcement, leaving schools in a difficult spot.
Michael Bromirski, superintendent of Hempfield School District in Lancaster County, told the Senate Education Committee that since pandemic mitigation rules lifted earlier this summer, school districts no longer handle quarantine orders for students exposed to the virus after the department told them it’s the state’s responsibility – and authority – to do so.
Except, parents rarely receive such instructions, generating confusion and frustration.
“Parents are looking to us, the school districts, and are questioning how we can exclude their child from in-person instruction because the DOH has not contacted them,” he said. “We are attempting to abide by the directions we have been given by the DOH, but they are not following through on their stated responsibilities.”
When schools reach out for clarification or guidance on how to interpret the department’s rules, however, officials say they receive only generic emails in response. Some contain “thinly-veiled” threats of legal action, fines and jail time for noncompliance.
“After being applauded for figuring out how to open our schools for in-person instruction, schools have become the new front line in the battle over mask wearing and other COVID mitigation efforts and it is simply not sustainable,” Bromirski said. “Instead of being supported, we are being blamed and threatened – from all sides”
The complaints come after the department issued a statewide mask mandate for all public, private and parochial schools and child care centers starting Sept. 7 as a consequence of the delta variant sickening nearly 300% more children between mid-July and the end of August. This, after eight in 10 districts submitted health plans that didn’t require masks for students and staff.
The decision reversed months of promises from Gov. Tom Wolf and acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam that virus mitigation policies would remain under the purview of local school board leaders. The stress of developing plans with community input, however, has forced many officials into retirement, said Barry Fillman, director of Jefferson County-Dubois Area Vocational-Technical School.
“We as school administrators have been put in a position to absorb everything that politics creates and it is breaking the will of decent, loving people,” he said. “They [parents] cannot get at you to air their grievances. They come to us.”
Jessica Daugherty, director of the Lititz Christian Early Learning Center in Lancaster County, said enforcing masking for toddlers proves exceptionally challenging – both logistically and developmentally.
She said children with language and speech delays have regressed, while teachers report an uptick in “negative behaviors.”
Last year, child care centers weren’t required to enforce masks. But under the Aug. 31 order, schools and day cares face punitive consequences for excusing masks without a doctor’s note or a religious exemption.
“Not only did the choice on wearing masks get taken away from a parent, but the obligation of requiring to wear a mask was placed on the child care provider,” she said. “So if the parents or caretakers that bring their children to our center cannot get a medical exemption and refuse to comply, I can be removed from the center for noncompliance? How is this even reasonable?”
The department declined participation in the meeting pending litigation against the Aug. 31 masking order.
In submitted testimony, however, Beam reiterated the department’s logic behind mandating masks, citing rising COVID-19 case counts in schoolchildren too young for vaccination.
“We also saw a reluctance of many school leaders to act, administering optional masking policies with broad opt-outs that would allow the virus to run rampant in our schools,” she said. “Looking at all of these facts … we knew that instituting the masking order was necessary to preserve in-person education in our schools.”
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Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania’s General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.
Photo “learning in the classroom” by Hempfield School District.