As the Delta variant causes COVID case trends to reverse, the debate over mandatory mask and vaccination policies has picked up at districts and campuses nationwide with students and educators on the verge of another school year during a pandemic.

In Lebanon County, Cornwall-Lebanon School District provided one such example of the tension that can exist between administrators and parents at this point in time, with a heated exchange occurring this week at a public work session over CLSD superintendent Philip Domencic’s decision to not implement a mandatory mask policy for the district this fall.

Although Domencic’s decision was the focus of parent Kevin Keller’s comments at the Aug. 9 public work session, the fact that he needed to make such a decision is itself a marked change from the previous school year, during which the state provided much more detailed guidance on how institutions should operate during the pandemic.

State backs away from mandates

If Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s initial response to the pandemic was viewed by critics as heavy-handed, then the current approach represents an attempt to invert that strategy and pivot from complex mitigation mandates to an exceedingly simple message: Get vaccinated. (Editor’s Note: Find a location to get vaccinated here.)

Gov. Wolf has directed public health officials to put singular emphasis on vaccinations, but otherwise punted on the more rigorous guidance that defined last year’s response.

“The Department of Health recommends Pennsylvanians — including school students, teachers and staff — follow CDC guidance,” said Department of Health spokesperson Maggi Barton. “The administration continues to encourage all eligible individuals to get fully vaccinated to protect themselves and their loved ones, especially those too young to get the vaccination.”

The Department of Education sounded a similar note.

“While there is not a plan for the state to mandate a masking requirement in schools at this time, the CDC recommends all students, teachers and staff wear masks in K-12 schools, which the administration supports,” said spokesperson Kendall Alexander. “The best way to protect our students and schools is for all eligible people to get the vaccine.”

The upshot is that local educational administrators find themselves serving as de facto public health officials.

Exchange at public work session

“My questions are around the health and safety policy and specifically the mask-optional part of it,” began Kevin Keller at the Cornwall-Lebanon School District board work session on Monday night (video embedded below).

Keller continued: “Based on the fact that the Department of Health recommends the CDC guidelines, the PDE recommends the CDC guidelines, American Academy of Pediatrics and CDC both recommend universal masking in schools, but draw specific attention to areas where vaccination rates are low …. and also to elementary students who are ineligible for vaccination, I’m wondering what agency resources were used to develop a mask-optional plan when all available guidance points to universal masking for pretty much everyone, but specifically drawing attention to those who cannot be vaccinated.”

Domencic, who had spoken against mask wearing prior to it being made compulsory by the state last year, told Keller that the decision was based on looking at “the local data and where we actually are within our school environments” as well as concerns from parents over mental health issues. Domencic also said that recommendations and guidance had changed over the course of pandemic. (As LebTown has reported previously, for masking in particular there has been constant widespread political and public health support since at least June 2020.)

As the back-and-forth continued, Domencic clarified that mental health concerns drove his decision-making.

“I think, Mr. Keller, what we’re trying to do is look at the overall health for all of our students, the physical health, as well as what parents are stating are mental health concerns. Which I cannot tell you the hundreds of parents I’ve spoken with over the last year that have expressed those concerns, and many of the comment that we have speak to that from the parents that did respond, as well as others that approached us,” said Domencic.

Later in the exchange, Keller asked Domencic if the parent feedback could be shared with the public, but Domencic said it was not feasible for the district to redact that volume of feedback.

Keller asked Domencic whether the decision was being made as a personal or political decision, or an evidence-based decision.

“It is not being made as a personal or political decision,” said Domencic. “I will recognize that it has become an unusually political issue, within the community, certainly nationally, certainly statewide, and I would say to you that public school districts have been thrust into the center of this where we are an educational institution and we are being asked to make public health decisions and do contact tracing and essentially do public health like we did last year, with like we had last year, resources that are next to impossible to do that with.”

“We realize that there are people that have very strong feelings about this, as yourself and there are people that have very strong feelings about this on the other side. But what we need to be able to do is work with those students and families and respect what their different health needs are and try meet them where they’re at–we need to respect their physical health needs, we need to respect their mental health needs, their psychological needs, and try to support them whatever their circumstances are.”

Domencic said that if things are mandated, they have followed the mandates, but “there are people who would say that’s simply not acceptable and there would be some opinions on it” if he had to make a mask mandate in accordance with CDC guidelines.

Domencic, Keller share followup thoughts

“Face coverings are just one mitigation strategy,” said Domencic in an email statement to LebTown. “However, this is the one mitigation about which many of our families have expressed the highest degree of concern regarding feelings of isolation, health issues and the overall impact on the social/emotional learning and growth of their children.”

Domencic also suggested in the statement that there could be long-term effects from requiring children to wear masks.

Domencic said the district’s health & safety plan would be updated as needed and expressed his appreciation for CLSD families. “Our success last year was a result of cooperation from and respect for all parents and families,” said Domencic in the statement. “We considered all feedback received from parents and community members and solicited via surveys and focus groups.”

“The proposed 2021-2022 CLSD Health & Safety Plan will continue to consider the physical and social/emotional needs of our students,” said Domencic in the statement. “Instructional options with in-person learning and our virtual school will permit families to make the best decisions for their children.”

In a phone interview Friday, Keller said he’s heard from a handful of parents after the meeting, as well as a few educators, expressing agreement with his Monday night comments.

Keller acknowledged the potential mental health challenges at stake, while adding that his understanding was the mental health risks of isolation outweighed those of wearing masks.

When asked what he thought the outcome of a popular vote on the subject would be, if one were taken by families in the district, Keller said that it would be a tossup given how COVID was politicized locally.

“I think there are a lot of people out there that want to do the right thing,” said Keller, noting that his main issue was the decision’s apparent basis on anecdotal rather than empirical data.

“Truthfully, I’m still very frustrated with the district and the administration and the plan that they put in place,” said Keller. “They have just completely failed to back up their decision with sound reasoning and logic.”

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