Sunday, August 15, 2021

Pottstown to Require Masks When School Starts

Image from screenshot
From top left, Pottstown Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez, Vice President Katina Bearden, members Susan Lawrence, Thomas Hylton, John Armato, Raymond Rose, Board President Amy Francis and member Laura Johnson.

With COVID-19 cases once again on the rise, thanks to the more contagious delta variant of the virus, the Pottstown School District has announced that masks will be required indoors for all students and staff when school starts on Aug. 23, "regardless of vaccination status."

The consensus decision was reached during a public relations and community engagement committee meeting Aug. 12 at which seven board members agreed to move forward with the change.

The new policy, which Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez will announce officially on Monday, sets the trigger for requiring masks for all at a 14-day average positivity rate of 5 percent.

Unfortunately, positivity rates in Pottstown have risen sharply throughout July and the rate now stands beyond that milestone at 5.5 percent -- with no indication it will go down any time soon, Rodriguez said.

Health officials, he said "have shown us models that said we're spiking. I know that's not something anyone wants to hear."

Rodriguez noted that at this point last August, when the decision had been made to keep schools closed, the positivity rate was only 1.2 percent "but we didn't have the vaccine then."

And although Pottstown's teachers are "more than 80 percent vaccinated, it may even be 90 percent," the same cannot be said for the Pottstown community, said :Rodriguez.

This map of vaccination rates in Montgomery County shows the highest vaccination rates in red, then in yellow. Areas in green are in the 40 to 55 percent range and those in blue are below 25 percent.

According to data collected by the Montgomery County Health Department, only between 40 percent and 55 percent of Pottstown residents have been vaccinated.

And until testing indicates its safe, children younger than 12 cannot be vaccinated, making the potential for them to spread the virus to others higher than those who are vaccinated.

The delta variant of the virus has also been shown to infect even those who are vaccinated. And while they do not need to be hospitalized often, test show they can nevertheless spread the virus to others.

Worse yet, the delta variant has been found to affect children more adversely than its earlier iterations.

"Lots of children are in the hospital, lots of children are very, very sick," School Board President Amy Francis said during Thursday's meeting. The virus "will continue to mutate, that's what viruses do."

She also noted that "our hospital no longer has a pediatric ward, thanks to Tower Health, so if this goes badly, our community could be affected in a very big way."

"The delta variant is very worrisome," said Vice President Katina Bearden. "With the earlier strains, young people were not affected as much. But we know more now and what we're in right now is actually worse in many areas than when we started."

Bearden pointed to the previous school year when Pottstown Schools, unlike some of its neighbors, remained closed with virtual education well into the spring. 

"I liked that our district did not topple. We made a decision based on the data and it helped families. It was clear and less confusing," Bearden said.

The decision comes in the wake of recommendations for mask wearing from the CDC, Pennsylvania Department of Health, and Montgomery County Office of Public Health, all of which have recommended, but not mandated, the use of masks indoors.

That leaves the decision up to the school district. 

"The federal government took a lot of heat, so they passed it down to the states, and then the states took a lot of heat and passed it down to the districts. There are no mandates, so that means we're going to have to be the bad guy," said Rodiguez. "We're making the decision for our community. It's a heavy weight and I'm feeling it."

School board member John Armato, who is also the district's unpaid director of community relations, said throughout the crisis "the one constant is we have tried to communicate all the information available to us to the community in a timely fashion in the hopes that they will trust our judgement."

"No matter what we pick, someone's going to be unhappy," said Rodriguez.

However, unlike in some other districts, where the debate over mask mandates has turned ugly, there may already be majority support for this mandate, according to a recent survey taken of Pottstown parents which drew nearly 600 responses.

The results of the survey Rodriguez shared with the committee show fully 62 percent of parents would prefer a mask mandate.

The second question in the poll asked if parents would prefer masks remain option so long as positivity rates remain low, which drew a favorable response of 52 percent of those polled. 

Rodriguez said the mathematical puzzle of how than 100 percent could hold seeming opposite opinions was solved when he went through the hundreds of comments parents made in their responses and realized "there are a significant number of parents who are going to send their children to school masked regardless."

The seven board members at the meeting, Francis, Armato, Bearden and board members Raymond Rose, Susan Lawrence, Laura Johnson and Thomas Hylton, all supported the decision to start classes with a mask mandate.

Rose noted that in addition to the elementary schools, where students are all too young to be vaccinated, the middle school will essentially have two classes too young to be vaccinated, and two old enough to get the shot.

"I think with the rates we have, and the way things are going, masks have to be worn," he said.

"Clearly, when you look at the trajectory locally and around the nation, to me it would make sense to start the year with masks," said Johnson.

Johnson also observed that with new quarantine guidelines, those considered to be in close contact with someone who tests positive will not need to quarantine if both were wearing masks. 

She pointed to the news that in Palm Beach County, Fla. schools, where the governor has banned mask mandates, that had to send 440 students home to quarantine after just two days in school.

If the goal is to keep students in school as long as possible, everything possible should be done to reduce spread both in school and in the broader community, Johnson said. "If we want to avoid shut-down, we need to preserve our ability to have kids in school."

"I think it's kind of a no-brainer," said Lawrence. "I hate masks, I hate teaching in masks, but I'm not a scientist and I think we have to go with what the experts say."


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