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Lehighton retains masks policy

Lehighton Area School District’s board of directors shot down a motion Monday night to defy the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s order requiring masks to be worn inside school buildings.

Director David Bradley made the motion to give parents the option on whether or not to mask their child.

“Until such time that the state government can prove they have lawful authority over our local government, I think that is the route we should take,” Bradley said.

Bradley, Gail Maholick and Richard Beltz voted in favor of giving parents the option on masks, while Larry Stern, Rita Spinelli, Joy Beers, Nathan Foeller and Stephen Holland voted to keep the same district health and safety plan, which includes universal masking for students and staff.

Before the vote, Lehighton solicitor Eric Filer read the letter sent from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to Tamaqua Area School District after it originally voted to defy the DOH order on masks. The letter, among other things, threatened liability to the district as a whole and personal liability to individual board members if the district violates the order.

“I don’t like masks either, but it’s my job to advise the board of the risks out there and in this case, the state is telling us board members and the district could be liable.”

Superintendent Jonathan Cleaver also cited the letter sent to Tamaqua, saying it was the first time he can ever recall such a correspondence being sent to a district.

As they did a month ago, several parents took the opportunity during the public comment portion of the meeting to question the effectiveness of masks, while advocating for a mask-optional stance from the board.

“Masks have been shown to be 1% effective in keeping kids from getting sick,” Janice Collins said. “How long are we going to let the government bully us? We’re standing up to the school board, now we need the school board to stand up to the people higher up.”

Parent Fred Kemmerer said his son, who has bad allergies, was singled out twice in one day to be sent to the nurse’s office after developing a sniffle in class.

“He was sent to get his temperature checked,” Kemmerer said. “I just think twice in one day is excessive. We say it’s important to keep the kids in school, well I also think it’s important to keep them in their actual classes.”

Superintendent Jonathan Cleaver said Lehighton reported four positive COVID-19 cases within the district during the first week of school and 11 in the second week. The state’s rules on quarantining students, he said, make following the DOH order and requiring universal masking the best choice.

“Because of the quarantine guidelines the state has given us, if we would not have universal masking, we would have had over 100 students quarantining because of those 15 positive cases we’ve had,” Cleaver said. “Our goal, at the end of the day, is to keep kids in school.”

Speaking as a parent of two students in the district, Lehighton Business Administrator Edward Rarick said while he has no preference on masks either way, his main goal is also to keep his children in school.

“They don’t learn as well outside of school, so I’m all for the mandate as it exists because it keeps kids in school,” Rarick said. “I would have a problem if your child came in, sat next to my child, and now my son has to be out school 20 days because your child has COVID-19. Our children have a right to be in school where they learn best.”

As part of his motion Monday to make masks optional, Bradley also added that permission slips should be sent home with students so parents could indicate whether or not their child would be wearing a mask.

“Philosophically, I side with the people who came to the meeting as an anti-mask person, but I don’t understand how we could enforce optional masks with parental permission slips. It seems very chaotic.”

Beers advocated for a survey of district parents to determine how many were on each side of the masking issue.