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Jim Thorpe school board’s reckless actions

I find it astonishing how nonmedical school board members believe they know more than the professionals. It’s been happening with area boards whose members say they are frustrated with some of the quarantine, masking, vaccine and other protocols and guidelines associated with efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Look, we’re all frustrated to one degree or another, but we can’t feed our frustration with reckless actions that could make the pandemic worse.

The latest comes from the Jim Thorpe board, which voted 6-2 earlier this month to limit quarantines to just students and teachers who show symptoms of the virus.

This flies in the face of the state Department of Health and Education Department guidelines, which warn that asymptomatic people can be carriers along with those who display symptoms. These people can spread the virus just the same as those who show overt symptoms. The Health Department lays out specific guidelines about who needs to quarantine and under what circumstances.

The Jim Thorpe’s ill-advised decision basically tells district residents and the rest of us that the board is more qualified to make these life-or-death decisions than the health professionals who study existing data and make recommendations based upon this scientific and medical information.

The board’s decision prompted the resignation of Jerome Brown, the district’s director of technology, as pandemic coordinator. “I have followed the protocols, I have followed the law. To suggest otherwise would be improper and incorrect,” Brown was quoted as saying at the board meeting. Brown remains in the district in his role as technology director.

So what is the justification for the board’s action? According to board member Thomas J. “TJ” Garritano, the solution might be worse than the virus. In other words, taking necessary precautions to ensure a student’s or staff member’s health and well-being might be worse than contracting COVID-19. Seriously? If this makes sense, I must be living in an alternate universe.

Garritano contended that “hundreds of students” are being denied an education because of the current guidelines. He and a majority of his colleagues believe that the quarantine guidelines are overly restrictive, maybe even unnecessary and are causing students to fall further behind in their studies.

Superintendent John Rushefski voiced concern that quarantining only those who show symptoms could possibly violate state and federal guidelines. They don’t “possibly” violate them; they do violate them.

Let’s be honest, though, more and more superintendents are finding themselves caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. On one hand, they want to do what is right and follow prescribed guidelines that have been developed after considerable study and debate among health professionals. On the other hand, they serve at the pleasure of the school board members, and they must tread softly or suffer possible professional consequences that will affect or end their careers.

Oh, by the way, for good measure, Rushefski has been appointed the district’s pandemic coordinator and assured district residents that “quarantine protocols will continue for students/staff when symptoms are evident and/or a COVID-19 positive result is determined.”

Rushefski’s support of coordinator Brown’s efforts to follow the state guidelines is laudable in light of the board’s actions. Pearl Sheckler and Dennis McGinley voted against the change, and Glenn Confer was absent from the Oct. 13 meeting. Also voting in favor of the action, along with Garritano, were board President Scott Pompa and members Cindy Lesisko-Henning, Richard Flacco, Paul Montemuro and Gerald Strubinger.

The broad role of school board members has given rise to whether some boards are treading into areas beyond their knowledge. There is no denying that local school boards play an important role in implementing educational reforms, such as student testing and graduation requirements, but some critics contend that the traditional leadership and policymaking roles of local school boards have been compromised by bureaucratic intransigence, a tendency to micromanage school system operations and divisiveness caused by special interest groups. We have seen this play out in other local boards, including Lehighton and Tamaqua.

Some local officials are predicting that school board races on Nov. 2 could increase voter turnout significantly in some districts. Normally, these elections are snoozes, but as some parents and board members fight mandates and other restrictions associated with COVID-19, these contests are taking on much greater significance even though these topics are not traditional areas of a board’s concern.

The Jim Thorpe board has an opportunity to reverse its decision at its Nov 10 meeting, or earlier if it chooses to call a special meeting. I am confident that if the board members who voted to go in this direction think about the implications, not only for those who might be affected by their decision but also of the civil liability that the members themselves have possibly opened themselves to, they will come to the same conclusion that many district residents and I have that this was a really bad, knee-jerk decision.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.