Tamaqua Area school board president Larry Wittig said Thursday night he wasn’t looking to “stick a finger in the Governor’s eye” but at the end of the night, he did.
The school board – during a special meeting on Thursday – voted 5-2 in favor of defying Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and the state Dept. of Health by saying face masks would remain optional for Tamaqua students.
Earlier this week, Wolf ordered all K-12 schools and other childcare settings to mandate the wearing of face masks to, as he said, stop the spread of the COVID-19 “Delta variant”. But despite Wolf believing that masks are so effective at stopping the spread of COVID and his dire warnings about the health and safety of school students being at risk due to the virus, he didn’t make this mask mandate go into effect until Tuesday, Sept. 7, a full week after he announced the order.
Tamaqua becomes one of the first school districts in Pennsylvania to openly say it will defy the Governor’s and DOH’s order.
Tamaqua Set to Defy Wolf Order on Masks in Pennsylvania Schools
Wittig said the board called the meeting Thursday not to “make a political statement” but instead to find out what the district’s legal paths look like, if they did or didn’t decide to follow the Governor’s order.
“Do we have the right to go against the Dept. of Health,” Tamaqua school board president Larry Wittig asked at the start of the meeting.
For more than 30 minutes, the board retired into executive session to discuss the legal ramifications of a possible vote on the mandate during the meeting. When Tamaqua board members returned, Wittig informed the 70 or so members of the public that district Solicitor Jeffrey Bowe recommended the school follow the order.
That didn’t sit well with those in attendance, and apparently with most of the school board, too.
Many urged members to defy the mask mandate and their solicitor’s recommendation.
“Tamaqua has gone against the grain before,” parent Jess Tirpak said. “Let’s do it again. Let’s put Tamaqua on the map for a good reason.”
Some of the parents and taxpayers who opposed Wolf’s mask mandate for schools told board members that if they didn’t defy this order, it may never end.
Masks were referred to as “shame muzzles” by several people who vocally opposed the mandate.
“Shame muzzles should be optional, at best,” Tom Williams, of Tamaqua, told the board.
Not everyone in the school auditorium was opposed to the mask mandate, which is supposed to go into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Sept. 7.
One parent and several students voiced the seemingly unpopular opinion in the room, too, urging the board to adhere to the mandate.
“If I get this, it could really screw up my life,” a sophomore student said to the board. “I honestly don’t see any issue with it. Wearing a mask doesn’t present me with any issues. It’s been proven that it does help.”
However, another student, a junior, said she wouldn’t wear a mask, no matter how the board voted. And she said students only appear to be OK with wearing a mask because “there’s a fear you will do something to them.”
That student was addressing a concern another parent had about potential medical exemptions.
Superintendent Ray Kinder told parents that the district would work with families on an individual basis on medical exemptions, had the board decided to implement the mask mandate, per the state order.
After another, shorter, executive session to discuss “legal issues” the board returned and took the unexpected vote.
Board members Bryan Miller and Melanie Dillman voted for following the state mask mandate. Wittig was joined by members Nicholas Boyle, Trina Schellhammer, Thomas Bartasavage, and Thomas Rottet in voting to defy the mask order.
The vote brought many in the auditorium crowd to its feet, applauding the board’s defiant stance.
Photos: Coal Region Canary