A photo of a North Penn School District teacher taping a COVID mask to a student’s face went viral on social media earlier this week and sparked an outcry from parents. It continued to dog the school board Thursday night.
More than 400 people live-streamed the board’s meeting. Fourteen community members spoke during the public comment portion.
Some parents expressed outrage over the district’s mask mandate.
Vicki Flannery, chair of the Montgomery County Moms for Liberty group, accused the school board of intimidating community members, saying, “Parents and members of this community will never stop standing up against your abuse of power.”
The photo, initially posted Monday evening by a local Facebook group called North Penn Stronger Together, a page created by the Republican candidates for school board, was taken inside Pennfield Middle School in Hatfield, Montgomery County.
The photo then went viral on Twitter, shared by a former candidate for Florida’s 3rd Congressional District, Chuck Callesto, and Fox News host Sean Hannity, who entitled his tweet “MASKING MADNESS.”
When North Penn Stronger Together posted the photo, they urged parents to speak up against the district administration and the school board at Thursday night’s school board meeting.
“Pro-mask or anti-mask, I hope we can all agree that taping masks to children’s faces crosses the LINE. This was not a joke for the child or the parents,” the post read.
The mother of the Pennfield student, though, said the widespread media attention is exacerbating her family’s “emotional turmoil.”
She released a statement on Thursday, saying that the photo was leaked against her wishes, and that the media attention is “like a scene from [her] worst nightmare.”
The mother, who wished to remain anonymous, told a local news source, North Penn Now, that she originally shared the photo with a private Facebook group in hopes of gaining support at the school board meeting, with the caveat to keep the photo private. The photo was then shared publicly by North Penn Stronger Together.
Many residents are demanding that the district fire the teacher, and are describing the taping of the mask as child abuse — a term used throughout the summer by parent groups in Montgomery and Bucks counties to describe masking and COVID-19 safety policies.
Moms for Liberty is a national organization that has led fights over literature that addresses race, LGBTQ identity, and sex in schools. In October, the group fought for the removal of LGBTQ books in North Penn district libraries that it claimed included inappropriate sex scenes. The same group has a presence in Bucks County, where Pennridge School District recently removed LGBTQ books from its elementary school libraries. The group, initially from Florida, has been involved with masking debates across Pennsylvania, which has the second most county chapters in the United States. Local chapters are in Delaware, Chester, Lancaster, and Berks counties.
Wednesday afternoon, the North Penn district released a statement in response to the viral photo. It said that while the teacher had no intention of malice, the actions were “entirely inappropriate and unacceptable, no matter the context.”
WHYY News requested a comment from the district regarding actions being taken. The administration pointed to the Wednesday statement in response:
“We understand that the act of taping a mask to a student’s face is concerning to many and apologize that it occurred. The matter is serious and it is being addressed with the employee. However, all personnel and student matters are confidential and no further information can be provided.”
Another local Facebook group, the North Penn Neighbors for Progress, which is associated with current school board members, also released a response to the viral photo.
The board members emphasized that the matter must be dealt with “internally,” and that they cannot legally comment on district personnel matters.
They added a direct reply to North Penn Stronger Together: “The continued exploitation of any piece of negative news to re-instigate the cynical, partisan rhetoric that fueled your failed campaign is exhausting. But exploitation of a child and family on social media, in pursuit of political gain, is absolutely unacceptable. Please stop demanding public comment on a matter that must be foremost dealt with internally.”
Thursday evening, on behalf of the board and the district, Board President Tina Stoll said the teacher’s behavior was inappropriate and formally apologized to the student and the family. Stoll said the district “immediately took steps to investigate the matter and prevent any similar acts from taking place in the future.”
Julie Lopes, parent of a first grader at Gwyn-Nor Elementary School, said the teacher’s actions were “completely inappropriate.” But Lopes expressed concern that local groups were using the photo to prop up their “political agendas.”
“They’re taking something that should be at the purview of the school and leveraging that to be political and to cause disruptions at the school board and to push agendas that have nothing to do with the incident within the school,” said Lopes.
Another parent, Diana Blystone, has a fifth-grade student with special needs in Gwynedd Square Elementary School. Her son, Johnny, is non-verbal. Blystone is associated with a group of about 40 parents who are fighting for more support for students with disabilities in the district.
Blystone said that after seeing the viral photo, she felt fear for her son.
“My son being non-verbal, he couldn’t come home and tell me that someone taped a mask to his face. And I trust the people that work with him now that they wouldn’t do that,” said Blystone. “But moving forward, I need to know that proper steps are taken to keep him safe.”
Blystone said she believes the teacher’s actions and the district’s response is building on parents’ current distrust of the administration. She said the district should inform parents how exactly it is addressing the situation.
North Penn School District is no stranger to heated debates about masking. Throughout the summer, parents and residents sounded off over the district’s COVID safety policies.
Currently, North Penn requires masks for indoor public spaces during “high levels of community transmission,” following guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Masks are optional when transmission levels are “moderate” or “low.”
According to the Montgomery County Department of Health, transmission rates across the entire county, in every school district, are high. In the past few weeks, positivity rates and COVID-19 hospitalizations have reached record numbers since the start of the pandemic.