Staff and wire reports
With COVID-19 cases soaring nationwide, school districts across the U.S. are yet again confronting the realities of a polarized country and the lingering pandemic as they navigate mask requirements, vaccine rules and social distancing requirements for the fast-approaching new school year.
The spread of the delta variant and the deep political divisions over the outbreak have complicated decisions in districts from coast to coast.
In some states, lawmakers have banned districts from requiring masks despite outcry from medical professionals. Schools are weighing a variety of plans to manage junior high and middle school classrooms filled with both vaccinated and unvaccinated students.
In the Valley, some schools have said masks will be required when school starts next month. Others are waiting for more information.
“I am hopeful that schools will be able to open this fall with little to no requirement for mask-wearing,” Mifflinburg Superintendent Dan Lichtel said.
“We will need to watch the guidance and development of mandates as they form over the next month I believe the public and school community will very much appreciate a more optional, less restrictive approach to this.”
Line Mountain Superintendent Dave Campbell said at this time, the administration’s recommendation for the school board is that masks in schools are voluntary.
In Lewisburg, Superintendent Jennifer Polinchock said unvaccinated students who are age 11 and under will wear masks in the fall, but the policies could change if recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the state Department of Health (DOH) change.
“Our first priority is to keep everyone safe,” Polinchock said. “We know that vaccines do protect people against contracting COVID or at least getting very sick.
“We also want to get back to school and direct efforts towards teaching and learning.
“Allowing this to be voluntary may create more consternation among parents who wish their children to wear masks or want their children around only students who are also wearing masks.
“That would be a lot for the teachers and school administrators to manage, and I do not want to see them getting into the middle of these conflicts with parents.”
“We know all children 11 and under are not vaccinated, so the safest thing is to have them wear masks until they can be.”
“As of today, the CDC, DOH and Pennsylvania Department of Education recommend, not mandate, that non-vaccinated individuals wear masks,” Milton Superintendent Cathy Keegan said. “The district will continue to provide masks for any persons choosing to wear a mask.
For the start of the new school year, we will make sure our community is knowledgeable regarding the recommendation from health organizations so they can make an informed decision.”
Weekly tallies by the American Academy of Pediatrics based on state reports show that COVID-19 cases in kids increased nationally in July after a couple of months of declines. The most recent data shows a 1% increase from July 1 to July 15, representing 43,000 additional cases.
The American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday recommended universal masking in schools, even for those who are vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19. The CDC earlier this month recommended mask-wearing indoors only for students and staff who are not fully vaccinated.
The vaccine has not been approved for children under 12. If it is shown to be safe and effective for younger ages, vaccine manufacturers may seek emergency authorization sometime this fall or winter.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the fact that some states refuse to allow mask requirements “is just plain wrong.” She said the organization has embraced recommendations from the CDC. But school officials say masking decisions have been complicated by conflicting advice from public health officials.
In Pittsburgh, administrators are proposing that all public school students and staff be required to wear masks indoors to protect younger students and because of “concerns around unknowns from the variant,” spokeswoman Ebony R. Pugh said.
The Daily Item reporters Marcia Moore, Eric Scicchitano and Justin Strawser contributed to this story, along with The Associated Press.