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School safety plans intensify mask mandate debate

With the return of fall comes the return of a familiar debate: school mask requirements.

MECHANICSBURG, Pa. — With the return of fall comes the return of a familiar debate: school mask requirements. That debate is heating up as districts announce their safety plans for the coming year.

With a COVID-19 vaccine available, schools are in a much better position than they were this time last year.

Unlike fall 2020, many schools are now offering full-time in-person classes.

But because of the rapid spread of the delta variant and the fact children under 12 still can’t get the vaccine, both the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics now recommend that children wear masks at school.

“They are at risk to get COVID. We need to protect them. So you’re wearing your mask to protect others,” said Dr. Nancy Pimm, a professor of nursing and population health at Harrisburg University of Technology and Science.

Many Pennsylvania school districts are left scrambling to reevaluate their safety plans, just days after the state’s July 30 deadline to submit them.

Some of the state’s largest school districts—including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and all districts in Montgomery County—have mandated masks.

Cumberland Valley School District became a flashpoint for the debate when the school board voted Monday evening to make vaccines and masks optional for students.

“Our goal is to have kids in school five days a week, as much as possible. We want them in school because we know it's the best place for them,” said Superintendent David Christopher.

The decision didn’t quite satisfy some parents, both for and against mask requirements.

“What I hope to see happen is masks until the pediatric vaccine is introduced,” said district parent Megan Robertson.

“We will start the year with everything being optional, but if somebody at the state level decides they want to send down a dictate that everyone shall be vaccinated to come to school here, that's what they intend to do. I don't want to see that,” said Matthew Barrick, another district parent.

District officials said the plan could be updated as conditions and state guidance change.

An online forum drew thousands of comments before the board meeting, some vitriolic. Several board members took the time to comment on the high emotion behind mask and vaccine requirements, pointing out parents on both sides of the issue want to protect their kids.

“Let's tone the rhetoric down and let's talk about it,” said school board president Brian Drapp.

Board members said they hoped the community could support each other for the challenges that are likely coming this school year.

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