Starting this fall, students and staff in the State College Area School District who have been vaccinated for COVID-19 will not have to wear masks inside, while those who have not been vaccinated will, under a plan approved by the school board Monday night.
The 7-2 vote followed a lengthy discussion by the board and a contentious public comment period, with some parents booing during the meeting. Other parents spoke in support of the board, with some asking the district to go further and require everyone to wear a mask.
Ashley McDonald, a mother of four, urged the district to make masks optional and return the decision-making to parents.
“Here we have a proposed plan before us tonight that will not only mandate masks for unvaccinated individuals, but in turn will create a discriminatory segregated community filled with increased bullying incidents,” McDonald said.
She said she presented the board with a petition, and her comments received applause.
Others voiced support for universal masking, pointing to factors such as the return of Penn State students in the fall and the Delta variant, which spreads more easily.
"My girls are too young to be vaccinated at this point. We’re anxious for them to be old enough to be vaccinated. But masking keeps those who are not able to be vaccinated due to age or due to medical conditions safe, and masking for unvaccinated individuals follows the CDC guidelines, which are based on data and scientific evidence,” said Lori Miraldi, the parent of two girls at Corl Street Elementary.
She said she supported the district’s plan. But, she also pointed to the recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics that all children older than 2 should wear masks in school.
Matthew Ferrari, director of Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics and a member of the district’s Health and Safety Team, said that many of the factors in place in fall 2020 that limited the spread of COVID-19 from campus to town won’t be in place this year.
In the fall, he said, based on several measures, upwards of 40% of Penn State students had antibodies indicating exposure to the coronavirus before the winter holidays, while at that time the rate in the surrounding area was low.
He said Centre County residents in general dramatically reduced their interactions and spent more time at home. But that likely won’t be the case this fall.
“We’re going to have a large number of students coming back. Those students are going to be at much higher densities. They’ll be interacting at higher densities in classrooms and in dorms. The dorms will be at higher occupancy rates, so risk on campus will be comparatively higher,” Ferrari said. “We’re certainly hopeful that a large number of those students will have elected to be vaccinated, but at this point we don’t know that that’s the case.”
He said the statewide vaccination rate among college-aged students is about 40%.
Added to all of that, he said, are the fact that there will be more opportunities for residents and students to interact, including at businesses and bars and with the return of football season.
“I certainly hope none of those things will result in large outbreaks, but those are all factors that increase the level of risk to everyone around us,” Ferrari said.
The number of new COVID-19 cases in Centre County dropped dramatically with the end of the spring semester. Recently, cases in the county have only been increasing by a handful each day.
Superintendent Bob O’Donnell said the goal of the plan is to safely have daily in-person learning available.
O’Donnell said the plan is more flexible than last year’s and allows the district administration, working with its Health and Safety Team, to change its rules quickly if warranted.
“Say we go through the first month of the school year and we’re seeing — I’m hoping and praying for this — that we would see the same level of presence of COVID-19 in the community that we’re seeing right now. We would have conversations, and people like me would say, ‘Hey, what do you think about dropping the masks?’ I would just want the ability to do that,” O’Donnell said. “Or if we’re in the first couple weeks of school, and we see some cases, we’re seeing kids quarantine, we may change the secondary plan to be all kids masked. Or if we’re struggling managing it, we might shift it to all kids.”
Under the district’s plan:
- Masks are optional for all K-12 students when outside.
- Physical distancing won’t be required outside.
- People who aren’t vaccinated have to wear masks indoors.
- Masks are optional for people who have proof of vaccines.
- Everyone must wear a mask while on a school bus.
School districts are required to submit plans for returning to in-person classes to the state Department of Education by the end of July.
Board members Scott Fozard and Laurel Zydney voted against the plan.
How will this work?
According to a school district spokesman: The district began collecting vaccination information from employees in the spring and from families this summer. The district will be sending reminder emails about the process to families and employees in the coming weeks. The district is not requiring anyone to get vaccinated, and providing information is voluntary.
The district's student information system will say whether students need to wear masks. Only those who have educational rights to know that information under federal law will have access to that information.
Before the school year starts, the district will be training employees on "how to monitor, and if necessary, manage delicate situations."