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Coronavirus in Pennsylvania

Blue Mountain Votes to Allow Parental Exemptions from Mask Mandate

david helsel michelle vesay blue mountain school board mask mandate

david helsel michelle vesay blue mountain school board mask mandate

After a prolonged and at times heated debate Wednesday night, school board members at Blue Mountain School District voted to allow parental exemptions from the state face mask mandate.

The school board called a special meeting specifically to discuss the topic of exceptions to the mask mandate. They posed themselves with 2 options:

  • Require a note from a doctor explaining the medical reason for an exemption, or
  • Allow parents to exempt their own children from the mask mandate with a signed note.

Students are instructed to still wear a mask to school until their request to be exempt is approved by Blue Mountain administration. The school will be making an official exemption form available online for parents to download and submit with their children.

Blue Mountain Allows for Parental Exemption from State Mask Mandate in Schools

About 60 or 70 people filled the Blue Mountain Middle School cafetorium to express their disgust over the mask mandate. There were a few times that tempers flared as the public addressed the board.

In addition to fuming about the mask mandate and the debate at hand on Wednesday, people seemed generally frustrated that, after all this time dealing with the COVID issue, this is where we are again.

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Tension in the Room

police escort blue mountain school board

As many people asked the board rhetorically on Wednesday, if the masks didn’t work last year, what makes anyone think they’re going to work this year? But in community after community in the coal region and beyond, this is the debate everyone is having. And once again, people are at each other’s throats over it.

And once again, school boards are talking about policing masks and schools are spending their days policing masks and actual school seems like the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.

Like, on Wednesday, Blue Mountain has this odd 3-minute policy for Public Comments and the mic used by speakers cuts off right at that 3-minute mark. Every time it happened last night (and every time it happened last month when the issue was masks on buses), it pissed people off. It pitted school board against taxpayer.

When people didn’t walk away from the silent mic after too long, Orwigsburg Police walked up to escort people away and back to their seat. There was even a tense exchange when one person in the audience spoke out of turn, over School Board President Michelle Vesay, and she snapped, raising her voice, which caused the woman in the audience to yell back.

Police got involved and tried removing the woman from the meeting for causing a disturbance. She threatened to sue the officer if he touched her, she said.

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blue mountain school board orwigsburg police

This photo is a lot more bark than bite. And even the bark was soft. The officer was politely whispering to the woman to show an ID when she refused to leave the meeting. Still, all this over a brief outburst over masks.

All this over masks. It’s so sad. And no, we’re not saying, jeez just wear the thing. You’d think after all this time, people would see that masks or no masks, it really doesn’t matter.

But that’s not all. At the meeting Wednesday night, the audience was segregated into the masked and unmasked. It was quite the surreal feeling being corralled into one group based on what you were or weren’t wearing.

Again, this is where we are.

“A Bit of Extortion”

It seems most people at Blue Mountain and other districts prefer if face masks were optional. Over the last week, we’ve seen very few people in the pro-mask community turn up at school board meetings to support the mandate.

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The only people happy about the mandate seem to be Gov. Tom Wolf, Acting Health Sect. Alison Beam, and those people on Facebook who’ve resurrected the mask memes and tropes. The “it’s only a piece of cloth, people” people.

It doesn’t even feel like this is about health and safety. It’s a game. A lot of trust and faith has been put into these masks, which are just a piece of cloth, as they say. They’re the key to everything at this point, despite their questionable effectiveness.

New quarantine rules from the Pennsylvania Dept. of Education hinge on masks almost solely. For instance, if a student tests positive and was wearing a mask in school, only those around him identified as close contacts would have to quarantine, including the infected student.

However, if everyone was wearing masks in schools and someone tests positive, only that one infected person must stay home. That’s the rule. It’s not science but it’s the rule.

So, when more than 90% of the student body at Blue Mountain turned up last week to school not wearing a mask and a few people tested positive, it set off a chain of necessary quarantines, per the state’s rules, because no one was wearing a mask.

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“I’m not saying the these rules make sense,” Blue Mountain Superintendent David Helsel said Wednesday night. “These are the rules of the game.”

Maybe he said “game” in a tongue-in-cheek but Helsel also referred to the mask mandate as a “bit of extortion” on the part of the state. He says the state is trying to tout full classrooms this school term but the only way they’re really allowing that to happen – assuming there will ALWAYS be COVID infections in the future – is if people at schools are wearing masks.

Masked kids means no missed classes, no missed sporting events, etc. Unmasked kids means it’s 2020 all over again but worse, because now more people are tiring of all this and they’re starting to see through things more.

“Most people aren’t sold on the validity of the masks,” Helsel said. “They’re just being pragmatic.”

Finally, The Vote


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So, maybe you can call what Blue Mountain voted for on Wednesday as a pragmatic solution to a problem no one seems to want.

The board voted for option 2 of the ones in front of them. A parent only needs to sign a form exempting their child from the mask mandate. No doctor or medical professional approval is required. However, the exemption will need to be for a “medical” reason.

Solicitor Sud Patel explained that the school will have no way of verifying if the medical exemption listed on the form is accurate. And there’s no intent to do that at Blue Mountain. Instead, they’re going to make sure that the form is complete, with signatures and such, and it’ll likely be granted.

“We’re trying to come to a middle ground here and move the issue forward but do what’s in the best interest of the district,” Patel said … pragmatically.

And it only took 3 hours of discussion and sidebars among the board to get there.

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It’s not going to solve the quarantine problem as the state guidance on that would for the unmasked to miss school if they’re deemed to be a close contact of a COVID-positive person. Making matters worse with the quarantine issue, specifically at Blue Mountain, is the school has no virtual schooling option available to students in quarantine. They’re home from school and that’s that.

School officials said Wednesday they’re working on a solution to that problem and hope to address it in a week.


Photos: Coal Region Canary

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