Parents speak out about mask mandates at MSD school board meeting

Terry RogersHeadlines, Schools

Milford School District’s regular monthly Board of Education meeting had many parents speaking out against Govern John Carney’s mandate that masks be worn inside school buildings whenever children were present. The mandate includes students and staff when school is in session and in meetings where children are present.

School Board President Jason Miller began the meeting by announcing that many agenda items were being moved to the September meeting in order to provide additional time for public comment. Early in the meeting, Miller pointed out that there were children present and that due to the mandate, he was going to require everyone to wear a mask. A few in the audience who were not masked put them on, while most did not. One item that remained was a statement from Board Member Scott Fitzgerald about the mask mandate.

“Since the Governor announced the school mask mandates, I have heard from many unhappy parents and, based on what has happened in other districts, I am sure I am not the only one,” Fitzgerald said. “I have children who attend the district and who are teachers in the district, and I oppose the mask mandate. A teenager is more likely to die in an auto accident than they are of COVID, yet we do not have restrictions on teens driving or riding in cars. In fact, quite the opposite, we significantly restricted bus transportation, forcing more children to ride in cars which are far less safe than a school bus. As a board, we are unable to ignore a mandate from the Governor. But I wanted to go on record with my opposition.”

The newest board member, Dr. Adam Brownstein, also spoke in opposition to the mandate.

“I am a family practice physician and I have very strong feelings about masks,” Dr. Brownstein said. “The CDC says that masks work. They provide reports that say the mask mandate lowered the curve. Yet, this is not necessarily factual. We can easily view the data from North Dakota and South Dakota. Both states have similar demographics and populations, one had mask mandates and one did not. Yet, their COVID curve is almost identical. So what led to both states having a drop in cases in November 2020? I don’t have the answer, but I am sure it had nothing to do with masks. This pandemic has turned everything upside down. We have been told to follow the science, but only certain science. We were told “do this and flatten the curve,” and then those goalposts were moved. We were told to get vaccinated, but no one at the CDC talks about natural immunity or the side effects from the vaccine. They just don’t make sense to me, nothing makes sense to me. And I am sure they don’t make sense to any of you. Let me assure you that you are not alone.”

Dr. Brownstein explained that he had every intention of trying to get the board to send a letter to the governor protesting the mandate. After he spoke with others on the board, it was clear he did not have the votes. However, he found that the conversations he had with the other board members over the last week were still valuable as each side was able to make points that the other had not considered and, “in a world divided, these compromises were a sign that they might be able to reach common ground.”

Miller asked if other board members had comments regarding the previous statements.

“Let me be clear,” Board Vice-President Rony Baltazar-Lopez said. “COVID-19 is a real pandemic, and it can be deadly. COVID-19 vaccines work and face masks work. I wish my colleague would address his time and energy in real issues in our district, including reducing the dropout rate, which if many of you don’t know, 42 students in the last year dropped out, improving the graduation rate which sits at about 79 percent or reducing the chronic absenteeism and truancy related issues or even improving our school climate to better engage students with curriculum in schools. The misguided opinions of some of my colleagues should not hinder what we are tasked to do and that is to ensure that every single child receives the best education possible, not politicize our school board or school district. And let me be a reminder, any school board in Delaware does not have the statutory authority to override or go against a governor’s executive mandate.”

School board member David Vezmar explained that although he was not a doctor, he had children in the district and his wife was a teacher. He stated that before COVID, when parents had a problem with their children, they reached out to their pediatrician, or they searched WebMD or other health-related sites. They may even take the child to a hospital, Vezmar explained, pointing out that Delaware had some of the best pediatric facilities in the world.

“Every single one of these experts are saying that children should wear masks,” Vezmar said. “So, for me, as a board member and a concerned parent whose job is to keep children safe, I must look at what the experts are saying. Until these experts say that masks for children are unnecessary, I will support masks in schools.”

Board member Jean Wylie agreed with Vezmar, stating that she preferred to err on the side of caution in order to protect children with health conditions, bus drivers, teachers, custodians and other staff. She explained that the district was mandated by the governor, effectively tying their hands, but that she believed it was in the best interest not only of the students but the families they could expose to the virus.

“As I stated in the beginning of this meeting, some of you have chosen to bring children to the meeting,” Miller said when there was no more board comment. “I still see many of you in the audience who are not wearing masks. You must put a mask on per the governor’s ruling or we will not be able to continue the meeting.”

The statement was met with uproar as many in the audience still refused to put on masks. Several parents who had brought children with them offered to take the children out of the meeting so that public comment could continue while others remained with their children. All children in the room were wearing masks, but Miller insisted that all adults must also put on masks or public comment would not be permitted. When several people still refused to put on masks, Miller called a recess. As the recess began, he spoke to the audience, telling them that the board wanted to hear their comments, but the board was required to follow the mandate and, as long as there were children present, masks must be worn. Several audience members still refused to wear a mask, despite other members of the audience asking them to do so simply so they could express their concerns to the board.

After about five minutes, the board returned. Miller stated that he appreciated that the majority of the audience had complied with his request, although there were still several in the audience not wearing face coverings. The board then proceeded with public comment.

“I raised a family in Milford School District, I have grandchildren who attended Milford and I have great-grandchildren in the Delaware school system,” John Urban, who adamantly refused to put on a mask, said. “This is the most pathetic operation I have ever seen. You people are operating on a system that makes you nothing but a political football. The doctor had the statistics, 0.02 percent I believe you quoted. That’s the numbers and the rest is all political gains that you are furthering and continuing. Until you finally have the guts and the glory to say “Enough!” this garbage is going to continue rolling down from Dover and rolling down from Wilmington. It has nothing to do with the safety of our children. The safety of our children is to keep them out of a car because that is more dangerous than this. You change the rules in the middle of the meeting because you don’t want to hear the facts. That doctor on the stage? That is the man who knows.”

Dave Reisinger explained that he has doctors who have told him that masks are not healthy for his grandchildren, yet the board wants him to listen to experts. According to Reisinger, the doctor who treats his grandchildren is an expert on them more than someone who has never met them.

“As a retired science teacher and now working in healthcare, I am familiar with how you can manipulate data to create a narrative,” Matt Bowers said. “During my teacher training, we were constantly told to remove barriers to learning. Masks are barriers to learning. Interacting with people wearing masks is dehumanizing. Imagine a child being told to constantly hide their face. In their minds, they wonder what is wrong with their face? Masks destroy the self-image of a child. I am concerned about the control one man and his appointees have over our lives. I know I will not change your mind, but I am thankful that you have taken the time to listen.”

Amber Fitzgerald, whose husband is on the board, stated that many of the board members were thankful when the governor made the decision for them. She felt that the board should have allowed parents to make the decision for their own children. She asked that the board petition the governor to end the mandate. Julian Stevenson, who graduated from Milford in 2020, pointed out that there are posters and screens all over the school telling students to “do what is right even if people are telling you it is wrong,” imploring the board to do the same and petition the governor to end the mandate.

“I attended band camp with students this summer,” Jennifer Sinelli said. “I was there with other people’s children. The kids wear their masks. The kids didn’t question it. The kids want to keep each other safe. The kids understand the need for masks. It is the parents who are saying these things, not the kids. The teachers need to be protected, the bus drivers, the custodians. I pray for these people to start caring for other people because clearly they don’t.”

Linda Donovan applauded Miller for keeping the meeting under control with less-than-ideal circumstances and agreed with Wylie that it was important to remember others when discussing COVID protocols. She suggested that parents who don’t want their child to wear a mask consider an alternate form of education, such as home schooling or school choice into another district.

“Just like last August, I am facing fear, anxiety and dread,” Susan Puddicombe, a third-grade teacher at Banneker said. “I worry if I will bring something home to my husband and children. It is my duty to keep my family safe, but as a teacher, it is also my duty to keep your children safe. We have locked doors to keep out intruders. We have fire alarm drills, so they know what to do in a fire. I will wear my mask to keep your child safe. I am saddened to hear that only two board members mentioned the staff. We are people, too. I am also saddened when I hear that “only two children have died.” One child death is too many. This is merely an inconvenience for a short period of time. It is a small sacrifice we can make to keep our community safe.”

On Tuesday, Miller and Baltazar-Lopez released a statement regarding statements made by their fellow board members at the meeting on Monday.

“The Milford School Board would like to remind the entire school district community that personal views, opinions and comments made by members of the board regarding face masks do not reflect the official position of the governing body or the district. The DHSS face covering requirement is clear:  everyone kindergarten-age and older in K-12 schools, including Milford Schools, must wear a face mask to reduce the transmission of the COVID-19 virus. The Milford School Board does not have the statutory authority to violate an executive order. The board has an obligation to ensure that every student receives a well-rounded education despite the ongoing circumstances caused by the pandemic, and we look forward to ensuring that the upcoming school year is the most optimal learning experience for students, staff, parents and the entire Milfrod School District community.”

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