School administrators caught between school boards and state over new mask mandate

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — When Labor Day weekend ends, the state health department’s mask mandate will take effect for daycares, public and private schools.

But some superintendents still aren’t sure whether to change their optional masking policies.

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It’s a controversial issue among parents and many school superintendents feel caught in the middle, having to answer to both the state and their school boards.

This school year, more than half of school district boards decided to leave the masking decision up to parents, including the Hamburg Area School District in Berks County.

“They were explicit in their comments, in their directives that they were the only ones who could change that masking order so I need to be mindful of that,” Dr. Richard Mextor, superintendent of Hamburg Area School District, said.

But the state health secretary decided it’s not optional.

“Do I risk losing my commission from the government to work at Hamburg or do I risk getting fired by the school board for being insubordinate to their directive?” Mextorf said in a pre-recorded video.

A special school board meeting Tuesday night will decide whether to change course, but in the meantime, status quo.

“I could lose my license if I don’t follow this order,” Dion Betts, superintendent of Chambersburg Area School District, said.

Even though the Chambersburg Area School District voted to make masks optional, Betts is worried of the consequences outlined by the health department.

“School officials who fail to adhere to the order could lose the protection of sovereign immunity and may personally face lawsuits from those who may be affected by any official’s attempt to ignore the order,” Betts said.

He says administrators will take a more gentle approach to enforcement.

“Kids won’t get in trouble per se, however, if a child refuses to mask on the bus or in school there will be a conversation with the parent,” Betts said.

If it’s a problem, that conversation could include having that child enroll in the district’s virtual learning program or getting parents to drive them to school.

“A rule unforced is not a rule, so we do have to do enforcement but we want to do it in a way that is very humanistic and gentle,” Betts said.

Betts says politics aside, the masks will help keep everyone in school for the most part and avoid spreading COVID and having to quarantine.

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