Tensions over COVID-19 school safety plans boil over in Bucks County

Parents gather outside a Central Bucks school board meeting to protest or defend the board’s decision to open schools in the fall without requiring protective face masks. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Parents gather outside a Central Bucks school board meeting to protest or defend the board’s decision to open schools in the fall without requiring protective face masks. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Community members in the Central Bucks School District are in a heated debate over the COVID-19 safety plans for this fall, which boiled over Tuesday evening before the school board meeting.

The Bucks County school district does not intend to require face masks or conduct contact tracing, prompting local medical professionals and parents to organize a press conference to plead with officials to develop more rigorous COVID-19 safety plans.

Parents line up outside the Central Bucks school district administration building in Doylestown. At issue is whether schools will open in the fall with or without a mask mandate. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The event drew a tense crowd of over 60 people — including some who oppose mandating masks in schools. Some attendees interrupted speakers throughout the press conference.

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One crowd member, a white woman, swiped at Kevin Leven, who is Black, while he was holding a microphone for one of the pediatricians speaking, Dr. Anusha Viswanathan. As Viswanathan spoke, the woman yelled, “murderer!”

Others in the audience yelled, “lies, “child abuse,” and “my kids can’t breathe,” as speakers highlighted recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Kevin Leven (left) holds a sign of support for a group of pediatricians and parents calling for masks in Central Bucks schools when they reopen in the fall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“We are here to say that every student deserves the opportunity to learn in person,” said Dr. Mariam Mahmoud, a pediatric physician and Bucks County resident with four children in the district, who helped organize the press conference. She is also running for school board in November. “Trust the pediatric guidance provided during this pandemic.”

The district released a draft of its COVID-19 safety plan to the public on July 20, which was left open for community input until July 26. In a 5-3 vote, the school board officially approved the plan Tuesday night, and needs to submit it by July 31 to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which is leaving COVID-19 decisions to districts.

Parents line up outside the Central Bucks school district administration building in Doylestown. At issue is whether schools will open in the fall with or without a mask mandate. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Over 100 medical professionals based in Bucks County also signed a petition against the Central Bucks School District’s current school safety plans for September, which they say goes against current recommendations by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the American Association of Pediatricians.

Earlier Tuesday, the CDC said it recommends all students, staff, and teachers wear masks in schools — even if they are vaccinated — citing the spread of the highly contagious delta variant, which is on the rise across Pennsylvania and in Bucks County.

Bucks County reported an average of 32 new COVID cases per day last week, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the CDC. That represents an “increase of 10 cases per day over the previous week, and more than triple the rate of early July, when daily cases numbered in single digits,” the Bucks County Commissioners Office said. Unvaccinated people in the county run a high risk of getting the virus.

Cherie Andre of Doylestown shouts at a speaker outside the Central Bucks school district building, who were advocating the use of masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the schools. Andre said she would not vaccinate her 14-year-old son and she did not want him to have to wear a mask at school. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

About 40% of county residents have not yet received a dose of the vaccine, according to the state Department of Health. Children under 12 are still not eligible for the vaccine.

Paree Pasi is a rising junior in the Central Bucks School District and lives with two grandparents who are immunocompromised. Pasi also lost a number of family members in India from COVID-19.

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“Why take the chance of your children dying when there are preventative measures we can take? I’d rather be safe than sorry,” said Pasi.

Pediatrician Marion Mass whose son is a rising senior in the Central Bucks school district, says she is comfortable with the district’s plan to open without requiring masks, knowing that the plan will change if the data changes. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Leven, founder of the Bucks County Anti-Racism Coalition, pointed to his sign in the shape of the number one, which he held near each speaker during the press conference.

“That’s the number of preventable deaths. That’s too many,” said Leven. “We’re here to try to keep the kids safe. And keep everyone safe.”

Jaime Walker, has three children in the Central Bucks School District, ages 10, 13, and 15. She’s happy with the district’s safety plan and looking forward to a return to “normal.”

“I don’t want my children to wear masks,” she said.

Jamie Walker withdrew her three children from Central Bucks school district because of remote learning and fully supports plans to reopen in the fall without mask mandates. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Walker took her kids out of the public school system last year and put them into private school, where they were not required to wear masks in the classroom. Walker added they did not contract COVID-19. “Nothing happened,” she said.

Walker said she trusts the local health guidance of Dr. David Damsker, the Bucks County Health Commissioner.

“We’re not just listening to random guidance, popped on your phone,” said Walker. “It’s meaningless. We have somebody here that actually works with COVID.”

In June, Damsker supported the district in lifting its mask mandate with just a week left of school. Damsker previously told WHYY News that he often disagrees with the CDC. For example, the Bucks County Health Department said physical distancing requirements in schools could be as few as three feet in June 2020, long before the CDC made that recommendation in March 2021.

When asked for a comment on the district’s reopening plans, Damsker referred questions to county spokesman Larry King.

Pediatric infectious disease physician Anusha Visnawathan calls upon the Central Bucks school board to require protective masks when schools open this fall to protect against the spread of COVID-19. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

King said the commissioners still recommend three feet of distance when possible, for example, but every recommendation is “advisory, and each school district is free to take or leave them.“

“The county’s position has always been that it is up to individual school districts to do whatever their leaders think is in the best interests of their students, staff, and community,” said King. “The county has no direct involvement in that decision-making process.”

But some parents are still worried about kids who can’t get vaccinated yet.

“Let’s say there’s one student who happened to be at the school and got very sick and was on a ventilator and died,” said Heidi Hornick, a parent in the district. “Who’s responsible for that?”

Hornick’s daughter, Mikayla, 15, has been diagnosed with two kinds of cancer and is currently paralyzed. She’s recovering from chemotherapy and has mild heart issues.

Heidi Hornick would like to see a mask requirement in the Central Bucks school district, where her daughter Mikayla, is a student. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Hornick is worried about Mikayla being around unmasked students. For Mikayla, virtual school isn’t an option. She won’t receive the kind of support that she would during in-person learning.

“I think with the numbers going up and we’re not really sure what’s going on, why not play it safe until we have the answers?” said Hornick.

“One being sick is too many.”

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