by Terry Rogers
*UPDATE: On Monday, February 28, Governor John Carney announced that mask mandates for schools could be lifted as of 6 PM Tuesday, March 1. Because Milford School District Board of Education voted to rescind the mask mandate “earlier than March 31 should the governor make that determination,” Milford students are not required to wear masks effective Wednesday, March 2. Because this meeting was held prior to the governor’s decision, some of the quotes and statements may have different dates.
Effective March 2*, Milford School District students and staff will be allowed to choose whether or not they wear a mask in district buildings. After hearing overwhelming support from parents and educators to make mask wearing an option, the board voted six to one to allow the change. This change was based on Governor John Carney’s recent change to COVID-19 protocols which allowed districts to choose whether or not mandatory masks would remain.
“On February 7, the State of Delaware announced the universal indoor mask mandate would expire on February 11,” Dr. Kevin Dickerson, Superintendent, said. “The state further announced that the extension of the school mask requirements until March 31 was provided to allow parents time to have their school age children vaccinated if they wish. We will need to make a district decision at the latest by March 21, which is the date of our next school board meeting. As the state will be looking to end the school mask mandate on March 31, I believe we need to strongly consider following the state’s lead, which we have followed throughout the pandemic as a district, in regard to mask wearing and provide choice for families, students and staff in regard to mask wearing in our schools beginning on April 1.”
In order to allow the public time to speak, the board agreed to postpone board discussion until after the public comment portion of the meeting. Jason Miller, President of the board, reminded speakers that they had only five minutes and that the board would be unable to respond to their comments. He also reminded everyone they were in a school building which meant masks were required. More than a dozen individuals spoke in favor of making masks optional.
“On February 7, I was asked by the board president Miller to determine the MEA stance on imposing a local masking policy once the governor’s mandate expires on March 31,” Kerri Stahl a teacher and president of the Milford Education Association, said. “Since we had not polled our members on this subject for quite some time, I immediately sent out a survey and on the survey was one simple question. Do you want MEA to advocate for a local masking mandate to be adopted by the MSD school board? Within 24 hours, we received 254 responses, a higher percentage of responding members than we’ve ever had on any survey. While the results of this survey were clear, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are valid concerns on both sides of the masking debate. With that being said, based on the results of our survey, the MEA union’s official stance is to ask the board to adopt a choice-based masking stance, allowing parents, students and staff to make their own decisions on whether to mask or not.”
Several parents spoke of their children’s severe anxiety and depression due to the mask mandate with one parent stating that her child was in therapy for suicide ideation.
“Personally, my daughter has experienced a multitude of negative side effects on the ongoing masks and it has caused her severe anxiety, severe depression and exacerbated her claustrophobia,” Crystal Jackson said. “She has nightmares several nights a week where she wakes up hyperventilating and screaming that she’s choking on her mask or it is most mornings before school, she experiences panic attacks in which she begs me to not make her go to school. As a result of this she has to take several mental health days from school because I cannot bring myself to send her into school when she is in such a fragile state.”
Jackson continued that her daughter was in counseling, but that she had begun biting her nails, chewing on her hair and even cutting her hair in school. Because she was also required to wear her mask at dance, Jackson’s daughter decided she no longer wanted to be in ballet.
“My daughter has an IEP for speech, which she has had since she was three years old,” Jackson continued. “She is already self-conscious about not always being understood by her peers as to what she’s saying because of her speech impediment. And the mask muffling her voice is only making that much worse for her. My daughter received the facial covering exemption form by her doctor back in November because of her diagnosis of severe anxiety, claustrophobia and depression. The school created a 504 plan for her to accommodate her needs which includes plexiglass around her desk and the ability to sit at her desk maskless. However, any other time she is required to wear a mask and that goes against her doctor’s recommendation and she is still experiencing the negative side effects.”
Katie Mumford pointed out that recent data showed that Delaware is among states with the lowest LSAT scores and that the CDC just announced they were changing developmental milestones for children based on social, emotional and cognitive milestones. She also pointed out that everyone had seen photos of school officials in large groups not wearing a mask.
“According to the Department of Health and Social Services, we have had two pediatric deaths since the beginning of COVID,” Jennifer Mosoti, said. “One age zero to four and one age five to 17. Not that their death can be discounted, but it shows that children are not at risk of dying. Out of 203,684 children currently residing in the state of Delaware equals a 0.00098% chance of dying from COVID. Also per the Department of Health and Social Services, 2100 deaths out of 2700 deaths reported were 65 Plus. I’m not discounting their deaths. It is very sad that people have lost their loved ones, but our children are not at risk. Allow the parents to decide what is best for their health, including whether or not to get the vaccine. In the last meeting, I think it was in early September, a mom mentioned that kids are not complaining about wearing a mask. Have you recently seen the YouTube video of the Nevada kids in a classroom when, over the intercom, where they were told no more masks and they were jumping for joy, yelling and screaming that they no longer had to wear this mask. It is time to adapt to the ever changing mutations COVID brings and make masks optional.”
Jamie Hill, who is also a Kindergarten teacher in Milford, pointed out that early childhood education is crucial in helping children develop cultural language and social skills, including the ability to detect emotion in the faces of others. She explained that masks create a visual barrier for those who rely on nonverbal skills such as lips, tongue placement and the way teeth are placed when speaking. Hill stated she had tried clear masks, but they did not work.
“So tonight, I’m speaking up for the child that has a speech delay that makes it impossible for teachers to understand them and gets frustrated when asked to repeat themselves several times still not to be understood,” Hill said. “For the child that requires a visual cue from their teachers and his or her mouth for making the correct letter sounds. For the child that wears glasses and has difficulty seeing because the mask constantly fogs them up or because their glasses constantly fall down. For the child that is so distracted by the mask that it makes it almost impossible to focus. For the child that has experienced trauma and is going to require intense teaching of how to properly handle anger and emotions. That child needs to see friendly faces to build positive relationships with teachers and peers. For the child that goes home to screen time and minimal conversation and only receives positive conversation with teachers and other school personnel. For the child who was trying to learn the English language for the first time without seeing the mouth of their teacher. Just for the record. I have at least one of each of those children in my classroom this year. And finally, I’m speaking up for the teacher that has felt defeated these last two years having to teach in ways that goes against the very grain of what he or she knows in their heart is best for students.”
Only one member of the public spoke against making the mask mandate optional.
“I’m not saying you should be mandated,” Jen Cinelli said. “But what I’m worried about is the proximity of our kids to each other staff, teachers. It’s a lot, 30 kids in a classroom in some instances, that’s too much. I think we should be looking at and working towards reducing our class sizes so that our children can have a safe education without masks on. I think that’s more important. I think that’s where we put our focus. I do want to follow what the CDC guidelines are, do want to follow what’s best for everyone. I don’t want to put anybody at risk, and I don’t want to put anybody in danger. I just think that all of this attention over this one topic is misguided, and I think it’s not helping with our failing education system at this time.”
After public comment ended, Miller asked Dr. Dickerson to read his opening statement as a reminder to the board and those in attendance. He also stated that the district’s head nurse was available should anyone have any questions about statistics. He then opened the comments up to the board.
“I said my entire stance since I’ve been a member of this board was to follow your recommendations whether I 100% agree with them or not,” Kris Thompson said. “It’s every vote I have had since I’ve started almost three years ago on this board was to follow this. The governor’s recommendations are the CDC and the Department of Health’s recommendations for the State of Delaware. I don’t see a need vary from that. So, I’m in support of the administration’s decision and the MEA is on board this time with that decision. So, for whatever what avenue and direction or district wants to go.”
Dave Vezmar agreed, stating that the board had followed the governor’s guidelines throughout the pandemic and he saw no need to stray away from that now, commenting that he would like to be able to tell his son that April 1 he would no longer have to wear a mask.
“First, I’d like to start by thanking everyone who spoke during our public comment period,” Dr. Adam Brownstein said. “No matter what side of an issue, you may advocate, I think that having your voice heard is important. I may agree with you. I may not. But I’m going to fight for your right to say what you believe, so thank you.”
Brownstein continued, reminding everyone that just six months ago, the board debated the mask issue. Back then, the board was split in their beliefs about the relative effectiveness of masks at that time, Brownstein explained. At that time, he supported a choice-based mask option and expressed his belief that the masks being used were not effective.
“On February 11 2022, the CDC published an article on mask effectiveness in their very own News Journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” Dr. Brownstein said. “This study found that wearing a cloth mask was associated with a lower adjusted odds ratio of a positive test compared with never wearing a face covering, but it was not statistically significant. Let me repeat that was not statistically significant. This public admission by the CDC is something that many of us have suspected all along. And I’m glad that the CDC has clarified what cloth masks are and are not capable of. So here we are debating this issue again. And I hope that tonight this board will vote to lift a mask mandate as soon as Governor Carney does so on April 1 or sooner should the Governor decide to move up his timeline.”
According to Brownstein COVID counter measures, whether they were warranted or not, have done numerous harm to children and he believed the time to restore normality had come.
“Having said all of that, I want to say publicly that I understand that many of you, either here or at home might be scared,” Brownstein said. “You have been told over and over how dangerous COVID is and that there are no treatments. For two years, you have been told to be afraid. I think as a board we need to acknowledge this reality. So first, let me say that the vast majority of people who get COVID recover. Second, there are effective treatments. Third, cloth masks do not provide a statistically significant benefit. Therefore, for those teachers, administrators or staff and Milford School District that are not yet ready to remove your masks for whatever reason. Please keep using them. I want everyone to feel safe during this transition.”
Brownstein then announced that he had partnered with Patriots for Delaware and the Delaware Medical Freedom Alliance to secure the donation of 200 KN95 masks to the district. He asked that those who still wanted to use a mask should the board vote to end the mandate at least use one that protects them in a statistically significant way.
Scott Fitzgerald and Jean Wylie thanked everyone for expressing their opinions, both stating that they felt it was time to make masks optional. Vezmar reminded everyone that if the board voted to make the masks optional, it did not mean every student and staff member would be required to remove their masks. He felt it was important to emphasize so that those who chose to continue wearing masks did not receive any backlash.
“We’ve been in an unfortunate circumstance as a board that many of these things that we do here at the school district on a daily basis are out of our control,” Miller said. “It is unique now that we finally have been given an opportunity to speak our voice as a district and maybe make some adjustments within our district beforehand. Again, there were things that we were not able to do. I do mirror the thoughts of Mr. Thompson, we’ve always strived as a district, as a board, to follow whatever protocol procedure and recommendations that we’ve had at the state level. I think any decision we make in the future we will always do that. We all swore an oath when we took office. And one of those principles within that oath was that we are sworn to follow the governor’s guidance. It’s directly in our board requirements. With that said, in my personal opinion, is that at this point, given the recommendations that we have from the governor’s office from the Department of Education, Department of Public Health and I don’t see any reason that we wouldn’t look at it as a personal choice. Personal choice for family, personal choice for that that family student, personal choice for the teacher or the staff member for the administrator and for a board member for that matter. And it’s great that we’re finally in a position as a society that we can have that choice and we’re moving in direction that we’re coming out of a pandemic. I’ve heard that I’ve heard now heard we’re in endemic which is a positive in my in my eyes.”
The item was not on the agenda as an action item, which Miller pointed out. He took a motion from Brownstein to remove the mask mandate effective April 1. Vice-President Rony Baltazar-Lopez reminded Miller that the board had to vote to add the measure as an action item before they could vote. After obtaining the motion and second, the board voted unanimously to create an action item on the agenda.
“I make a motion the Milford School District remove any and all mask mandates, effective April 1 or sooner should Governor Carney lift or be forced to lift the mandates sooner. All students and staff will be able to wear a mask at their discretion,” Brownstein said with Thompson seconding the motion.
Vezmar asked about lifting the mandate sooner, concerned that this could put undue hardship on the staff. Dr. Dickerson pointed out that most mandates allowed for a four-or five-day lag time which would give the district time to implement the change. The motion passed with Baltazar-Lopez casting the only dissenting vote.
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