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Union Local School Board Mandates Masks

Close to 50 parents, teachers and administrators learn Monday that a mask mandate will be put in place in the Union Local School District. The school board held a special meeting to address COVID-19 policy due to a spike in cases and quarantines. (Photo by Robert A. DeFrank)

Classes will begin with masked faces today, following a special meeting of the Union Local Board of Education Monday to review COVID-19 policies during the resurging pandemic, fueled by the more contagious delta variant.

The meeting lasted close to three hours. Following a closed-door session, the vote to mandate masks was unanimous, specifying that all students, staff and visitors would be required to wear masks on school grounds effective immediately. This does not extend to sporting events and activities, although masks are recommended by the board under all circumstances.

Just prior to the start of the school year, the board had decided to make masking optional.

Board member Dan Lucas, who had been opposed to mask mandates, emphasized that the new policy will be re-evaluated during the upcoming 6 p.m. Sept. 16 meeting, when the board will take stock of the caseload and other preventive factors.

All of the board members and the majority of audience members agreed that in-person teaching is optimal for giving attention to students. Board member Ed Stenger also noted that internet service is substandard in much of the district, making virtual learning less effective.

“I don’t want the masks, but we may be forced to have it, because I refuse to go virtual,” Stenger said prior to the vote.

Board member Dr. Shaun Roe, a physician, described the spike in cases in the first eight days of school. Union Local already missed one football game due to the opponent school’s COVID-19 issues. He said the board could not compare current rates with those of last year, since quarantine guidelines were more stringent then.

Close to 50 parents, teachers, staff, nurses and administrators attended the meeting in the middle school auditorium to voice their opinions, some in favor of a mask mandate and others opposed.

Some noted the higher caseload at the elementary school. Union Local’s attorney Gary Smith said the district could not discriminate regarding who would or would not be subject to the mask mandate.

There were several emotional speeches. A secretary recounted one incident where she was able to detect a student was in distress and needed help by observing the student’s face. Another staff member countered that this meant the district should take precautions including a mask mandate to keep face-to-face teaching.

Other teachers and parents voiced concerns about mental health issues among young children brought on by lockdowns and the inability to see faces.

More guests pointed out a lack of space has resulted in an inability to socially distance during lunch periods, which may have exacerbated the spread regardless of masking. A first grade teacher recounted the difficulties in working with very young children. A bus driver added it has been impossible to enforce the mask mandate on school buses by looking into a rearview mirror and said many children are not wearing masks on the bus.

In answer to one guest’s question about other school districts’ policies, board member Terry Puperi criticized other districts he did not name for failing to share information adequately. He said Union Local’s leaders would assess the situation and act in what seems the best interest of the district and its residents.

Roe answered questions about the effectiveness of masks, saying while high-grade masks are limited in efficacy, they are not useless.

Devin Roberson, father of a ninth-grader, asked about the types of COVID tests used and if they could be picking up flu cases instead. Talk turned to the different types of tests that explicitly detect COVID-19 and the likelihood of false positives, which Roe said were rare.

“How many cases are false positives that don’t really have it? Do we know?” Alan Wood, a parent, asked.

Board members acknowledged that due to quarantine requirements, many students who likely were not infected have had to go into quarantine for 10 days.

David Taylor of Morristown, a candidate for school board, said the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have been extreme and damaging.

“The worst thing that is happening with COVID is our impact on our own society, the impact on our children,” he said. “What we force our children and our families to go through, that is the worst impact nationwide, and we’re about to do that again.”

Several guests got up and left shortly after the board’s vote.

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