Pa. educators ask for a seat at the table in response to K-12 mask mandate, COVID-19 mitigation

‘These are all those unintended consequences of rolling something out without the ability to think through the implications,” a school superintendent told a Senate panel on Thursday

By: - September 23, 2021 4:42 pm

Even though they’re responsible for enforcing the latest statewide mask mandate in public schools and childcare centers, some Pennsylvania educators say they aren’t sure how to do it.

In an appearance before the Senate Education Committee on Thursday, three educators — two top administrators, and one childcare facility director — asked for a seat at the table and for better communication with the Department of Health and Department of Education, agencies that declined to testify due to active litigation over the latest COVID-19 order.

Coronavirus mitigation efforts have been the subject of more than a year-long battle in the Republican-controlled state Legislature. The testifiers, however, focused on how the ongoing debate over masking has divided communities and put students and educators in the middle of the argument.

Michael Bromirski, the school superintendent for the Hempfield School District in Lancaster County, told lawmakers that he doesn’t know what to do when a student says their parents had prohibited them from wearing a mask, or when someone shows up to a school-sponsored event without a face covering.

But the central Pennsylvania educator is tasked with enforcing a mandatory order that requires universal masking in K-12 schools and early childhood education facilities. The district enrolls more than 5,000 students.

Gov. Tom Wolf and acting state Health Secretary Alison Beam announced the mandate, which took effect Sept. 7, six days after Hempfield began the 2021-22 school year with in-person instruction and an optional mask policy.

“When people walk in and don’t have a mask, do we cause a scene? Do we create a safety issue? Do we stop the event and not allow students to participate?” Bromirski, who’s worked in education for more than two decades, asked lawmakers. “These are all those unintended consequences of rolling something out without the ability to think through the implications. And this is where we — as school leaders — have been strongly advocating for the ability to sit and talk this through.”

Jefferson County-Dubois Area Vocational-Technical School Director Barry Fillman echoed Bromirski’s frustration, saying that a lack of communication and timely information has contributed to distrust and frustration.

“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,” Fillman said. “We have now had two years to get it right, and this is really the best we could do?”

He noted an increased workload for staff, specifically school nurses.

“I cannot comprehend how my school nurse manages it all,” he said. “Professionally and with poise, she deals with people that are angry. They are not actually angry at her, but they take it out on her. They are not angry at administrators, but they take it out on them.”

He added: “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. They cannot get at you to air their grievances. They come to us.”

During the 2020-21 school year, Bromirski and Fillman said their respective schools kept in regular contact with the Health Department and were always able to communicate with the Education Department. 

Lancaster County schools had a weekly meeting with medical experts to discuss mitigation efforts and enforcement. But this year, he said communication with the Health Department is restricted to email.

“Email limits the ability to truly communicate, and it does not allow for meaningful dialogue that brings about clarity and understanding regarding information that must be interpreted and ultimately, enforced,” he said.

Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, Bromirski added that the Health Department scheduled a 15-minute meeting with a Health Department policy director and Lancaster County educators.

Jessica Daugherty, the director of the Lititz Christian Early Learning Center in Lancaster County, was the only testifier to take a stance on the mask mandate, saying it’s about “control.”

“Who has it? Not the parent,” she told the panel of lawmakers, adding that it’s difficult to enforce the mandate with young children. 

Daugherty, who has worked in childcare for more than 23 years, told committee members that educators should not be responsible for enforcing mandates. She added that families should decide on face coverings for children.

In a statement to the Capital-Star, a Health Department spokesperson said the agency, as well as the Education Department, is “continuously communicating with schools about the constantly evolving response to COVID-19.”

The spokesperson cited guidance issued on Wednesday that includes resources for case management, investigation, and isolation. They added that the Health Department has offered one-on-one support for schools throughout the pandemic.

“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,” they said.

The Health Department and Education Department both submitted written testimony to the Senate committee, outlining the justification behind the mandate.

“We recognize that implementing this order has been difficult, but this is not a mask-optional policy,” Education Secretary Noe Ortega wrote. “It is a necessary public health measure implemented to keep children safe and provide them with as much in-person learning in school as possible.”

Testifiers said opportunities to regularly communicate one-on-one with Health Department officials and medical experts, as well as clear guidance for enforcement, would help officials combat COVID-19 and keep schools open.

Members of the 11-member panel expressed similar frustration over not being able to get timely information from the Health Department over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic but assured panelists of their commitment to two-way communication between the Health Department and schools. 

“They just do not accept or understand that people need that communication to make informed decisions, and an email just isn’t the way to communicate,” Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Crawford, said. “I think this criticism has been very bipartisan.”

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