A change in Montrose Area’s face masking policy led to a marathon session of visitor comments at the Monday school board meeting that was held virtually with nearly 200 people in attendance online.
Board president Mary Homan read a statement created by the board for the public regarding the district’s policy changes that happened in the past week.
At the start of the year, face masking was optional in the district. On Sept. 7, a Dept. of Health masking order in educational facilities went into effect with some parents and guardians in the district sending in letters in an effort to opt their child out of the order.
Homan said the board had discussed its options and had been contacted by numerous sources, including the state, who said the district policy violated the mandate and that the district could face severe consequences, including the removal of the superintendent and stripping him of his letter of eligibility.
Actions against the board could also be taken, Homan said they were warned, for violating the disease prevention and control law and subjecting the school directors personally to liability. “Each board member could face a lawsuit,” Homan read.
The board met last week with its solicitor and insurance carrier who advised that allowing exemptions to the mask mandate without a doctor’s note would not be in compliance with the mandate.
“We are being forced by the state of Pennsylvania to comply with this mandate,” Homan said.
Following the statement, parents on both side of the masking debate were heard, as visitor comments went on for about four hours.
Tonia Oliver, who leads a district parent page on Facebook, asked the board not to vote on the change to the district’s Health & Safety Plan that was listed on the agenda and, instead, to wait to see how litigation already brought in the state on the mandate was decided in court.
She said she believed the mandate was not enforceable.
Other speakers echoed her sentiments, advocating that board members risk personal liability suits and go against the order.
Board member Paul Adams responded, “Your fight is not here. It’s with the governor’s office.” He also noted that even if a board member won a lawsuit, they would spend thousands of their own dollars to fight it in court.
One speaker said she kept her children home on Monday and planned to keep them home for the rest of the week.
On the other side, Molly Riordan offered, “Personally I am a pro-masker.” She said masking does not completely prevent COVID-19 but that it definitely mitigates the spread.
She also noted the school enforces things like the dress code, and wearing of PPE when students are working with chemicals in labs, and the wearing of helmets for football players. “The school district is the enforcement mechanism for this,” she said.
Mindy Conning offered, “This is a deadly disease. We all want to keep our kids and everyone else’s kids safe.”
She said the wearing of masks provided a temporary discomfort and was a “means to an end” of returning to a sense of normalcy.
After hours of viewpoints offered by the public, the board’s health and safety plan was amended.
The district also approved a special COVID sick leave policy for employees who need to quarantine due to COVID exposure.