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Schools that allow exemptions without proof not in compliance

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has not directly addressed the Warren County School District’s response to the statewide school mask mandate — but the department has seen similar cases and does not consider them compliant.

On Monday, the school board approved a motion that enabled parents to sign a form, with no need for a medical professional to do so, affirming that a student had a medical or mental reason not to have to wear a mask.

Asked about the situation, the department’s press secretary said a school entity that allows a parent’s affirmation, absent medical evidence of a condition that precludes wearing a mask, is in violation of the order.

“Under the Order… school entities must require all individuals, 2 years of age and older, to wear face coverings unless the individual has a medical or mental health condition or disability that precludes the wearing of a face covering,” Press Secretary Kendall Alexander said. “In accordance with Section 3 of the Order, before an individual is excepted from the Order, all alternatives to a face covering, including a face shield, are to be exhausted.”

“The Order is not a mask optional policy,” Alexander said. “Any school entity simply permitting a parent’s sign-off without evidence that the student has a medical or mental health condition or disability that precludes the wearing of a face covering is not in compliance with the Order.”

“It is recommended that any exception be in accordance with eligibility under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or IDEA for such medical or mental health condition or disability,” she said. “School entities should follow their established processes for determining student eligibility under those laws, including any medical documentation that they would normally require.”

“There are exceptions to the masking order, but a parent’s opposition to the order is not one of them,” Alexander said.

Asked about potential penalties for districts that are found to be in violation, Alexander provided a redacted letter sent to another school district. In that communication, PDE took a hard line against the redacted district.

No such letter has been reported as sent to the Warren County School District.

According to the letter:

“The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has received information indicating that (recipient redacted) is flagrantly violating and does not intend to comply with the Order.”

“Failure to implement and follow the control measures under the Order subjects a person, which includes you as a member of the governing board, to the penalty provisions of the Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955. A violation occurs each day there is a violation and may be charged for each student or staff member attending the school.

“In addition, districts that do not comply with or affirmatively elect to violate the law may be referred to the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for investigation. “In particular, failure to comply with the Order may prevent immunocompromised and other susceptible students from attending class in violation of the IDEA, ADA, and Rehabilitation Act.”

The item approved by the Warren County School District board on Monday did not carry an administrative recommendation, nor a board committee action. In fact, there is a note attached to the agenda item to that effect: “This agenda item did not go through committee and is not an administrative recommendation.”

In the communication to a district that was in violation, PDE offers some protection to those who were not part of a decision to violate the order.

“PDE has received inquiries regarding how superintendents, principals, and teachers should address school boards who direct them to violate the law. Please note that such individuals who report that district officials have instructed them to act in violation of law may be entitled to protection under the state whistleblower law.”

Through Wednesday, the district was accepting the form approved by the board as sufficient to allow students not to wear masks. “We honored the form,” Superintendent Amy Stewart said.

The administration has prepared an additional document — a waiver — that will be part of the exemption process moving forward.

Both the face covering exemption form and the student waiver form, along with a message regarding face coverings, can be found under “news” on the district’s website – www.wcsdpa.org.

Now that the waiver is available, it will be part of the requirement for exemption from having to wear a face covering, Stewart said. “To be able to exercise the exception, students and staff will have to have both the form and the waiver on file.”

QUARANTINE CLARIFICATION

In the story entitled ‘Face masks keep students from having to quarantine’ in the Wednesday, Sept. 15 edition of the Times Observer, there was an oversimplification of the rules for close contacts as they pertain to people wearing masks.

According to Stewart, the listed student exceptions for both vaccinated and unvaccinated students who are close contacts with another student who is COVID-positive, do not apply if the students were less than three feet apart for the close contact.

Vaccinated students with a close contact within three feet have to wear masks in schools for 14 days, or until a test – which must be taken two to five days after the contact – comes back negative. Unvaccinated students who were properly masked during a close contact of less than three feet will be denied entry.

The student exceptions apply when the close contact was from three to six feet of distance. In those cases, no further action is required when both parties were properly wearing masks.

COVID STATISTICS

There were 20 new cases of COVID-19 in Warren County reported Wednesday by the Department of Health.

That brings the total to 3,055 cases, 2,359 confirmed and 696 probables.

For the month, there have been 220 cases.

The county death toll from the virus remains at 111.

As of Wednesday’s report, 17,200 county residents had been at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19, with 14,812 of those fully vaccinated.

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