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Tamaqua reverses mask decision

The Tamaqua Area School Board determined that student masking will be mandatory within the next two weeks.

A motion was passed at Tuesday’s meeting to comply with the Wolf administration’s latest K-12 mask mandate.

Three weeks ago, the Tamaqua Area School Board voted to defy the mandate and keep masking optional for its students. But on Tuesday, the board, this time with each member in attendance, decided on a 6-3 roll-call vote to comply with the order, effective Oct. 4.

“The department of health’s order is being reviewed Oct. 1 by the administration - certainly by the department of education - I got that from a very reliable source,” said board President Larry Wittig before the roll-call vote.

“And some of these lawsuits that had been signed on hopefully will have some resolution by a week from Friday.”

Although masks will be mandatory for students on Oct. 4, exemption forms will be available online by Wednesday afternoon, according to Kenneth Dunkelberger, TASD chief operations officer. Dunkelberger said the exemption forms will be available on each of the school building’s websites for easy accessibility.

“At this point, there will be no masks until Oct. 4. If you submit the (exemption form) by Oct. 1, you will be exempt on Oct. 4,” said Nicholas Boyle, vice president.

Boyle said only a parent’s signature is required. “You don’t need a doctor’s note,” he added.

“If you don’t want to have a mask for bacterial reasons, you can’t breathe or whatever, you just have to fill out the form, have it signed, and you’re done.”

Noe Ortega, secretary of education, sent a letter to the district dated Sept. 8 after the TASD defied the mask mandate earlier in the month.

“As such, by failing to adhere to the order, you may personally face lawsuits from those who may be affected by noncompliance with the order, including children who may become ill as a result of the district’s violation, or disabled children who are unable to attend school because of the district’s failure to follow the order,” the letter said.

During Tuesday’s meeting, before the vote, Wittig called the letter “toothless,” and said he was not personally worried about litigation.

“There are concerns, but I think that it’s a shallow threat to get everybody’s attention and that letter did make it to the public not by accident. We didn’t leak it, I am assuming the department of ed did,” said Wittig.

“In any case, you need to - the general population - needs to trust our methodology here. Because there’s more to it than the threats of that letter and it deals with finances, and it has nothing to do with our general subsidy, because they can’t take that away.”

The Tamaqua auditorium was filled with many members of the public - many of the same individuals who attended the special Sept. 2 meeting.

Before the vote, many spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. A vast majority were passionately in favor of optional masking - or simply no masks for TASD students. Many public speakers commended, praised and thanked the school board, much like they did three weeks ago before and after the decision to defy Wolf’s order.

But that glowing support was gone only minutes later when the motion to comply passed.

Melanie Dillman, Bryan Miller, Mark Rother, Thomas Rottet, Daniel Schoener and Wittig voted to comply with the order.

Wittig and Rottet voted differently from how they did on Sept. 2, while Schoener and Rother, who were absent at the special meeting, voted to comply on Tuesday.

Voting against it were Trina Schellhammer, Thomas Bartasavage and Boyle.

Immediately after the vote, while the meeting was still in progress, shouts to specific board members were heard from the audience - calling some “unwanted” by name - while another member of the audience called for those who changed their vote from the Sept. 2 meeting to leave.

Moments later, one member of the audience stormed out, yelling, “You’re supposed to be up there doing what’s best for the kids, not putting money first - cowards, absolute cowards,” to the board. As he walked away, the large group in support of optional masking applauded him.

The meeting was adjourned shortly after the public majority showed its displeasure of the outcome.

Since Aug. 23, between TASD students and staff, 11 COVID-19 cases have been reported from the high school, eight at the middle school - which is connected to the high school, 12 at the Tamaqua Elementary School and seven at West Penn Elementary.

“Hopefully this will all go away. If it doesn’t - that’s all I can say at this time,” Wittig said before the vote.

“There are certain other things at play here, and if we can push this can down the road until Oct. 4, there may some resolutions, if not, then we’ll have to maybe revisit it.”

TASD parent Thomas Williams shouts to board members right after the vote to comply with the K-12 mask mandate was passed. See a video of the interaction at www.tnonline.com. JUSTIN CARLUCCI/TIMES NEWS