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Some parents want Brick superintendent to push back on school mask mandate. Why he says no
Asbury Park Press - 9/28/2021
BRICK - Some Brick parents are pushing school officials to fight state mandates requiring masks in schools, but schools Superintendent Thomas Farrell said Monday he would continue to uphold Gov. Phil Murphy's executive order.
"I'm all about local control" versus state mandates, Farrell said during an evening meeting with the school board. However, the superintendent added, he could face felony charges if he refuses to enforce the mask mandate.
"I will not break the law," Farrell told the crowd gathered at Brick schools' Professional Development Center.
The executive order requires all students, staff and visitors to mask inside school buildings, regardless of their COVID-19 vaccination status. Exemptions are made for eating, drinking, hot weather, high intensity sports and for individuals with health conditions who cannot mask safely.
"Unfortunately... we are back in pandemic mode," Farrell said. "Our region is designated 'high risk' by the matrix that we have to comply (with) and go by from the New Jersey Department of Ed. and the New Jersey state Department of Health."
The matrix lays out guidance from the Department of Health on quarantine lengths, social distancing and masking in schools based on community transmission levels of COVID-19.
School Board President Stephanie Wohlrab wrote Murphy in August, urging him to leave decisions about masking to local school officials. But, on Monday, she said Trenton leaders were not receptive to such pleas.
Wohlrab said she expects decisions on masks will not be returned to local officials until transmission rates drop and COVID-19 vaccines are available to all school-age children. Currently the vaccines are available only to adults and children 12 and older.
The board president said she has received numerous, angry emails on both sides of the mask debate. Both groups, she said, want a return to normalcy, but they disagree on the best way to get there.
In a letter read aloud to the audience, Wolhrab said: "Some New Jersey schools have already had to close their doors for quarantining or go virtual due to COVID outbreaks. We don't want that to happen here in Brick. Dr. Farrell and his administrative team had worked hard to get us back full time in person when many other districts could not. We need their focus to be on keeping Brick Township Public Schools open, not arguing over a mandate our district had no input or control over."
In August, citing concerns over the delta variant of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended universal masking in schools, regardless of a person's vaccination status. The federal agency urged "layered prevention strategies" to protect students and staff, including at least 3 feet of social distancing, screening and testing, more ventilation in classrooms, frequent hand washing, and contract tracing in combination with quarantines.
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Some parents have resisted the mask mandates as the issue took center stage in the national political arena. Some argued that masks were not effective enough to stop the spread of the virus and were a frequent distraction to young learners.
One private, anti-mask mandate Facebook group for Brick parents, called "Unmask Brick Schools," had more than 760 members as of Monday night. A Change.org petition of the same name had nearly 1,100 signatures.
Farrell said that emails and calls from upset parents have been about evenly split on the issue.
"The polarization of views in our community can be dividing and distracting," he said. "We will never find common ground without empathy, respect, understanding and civility toward one another."
School officials said removing masks in classrooms could result in more students being kept home for quarantine after COVID-19 exposures. Under Department of Health guidance, students who are socially distanced and are wearing well-fitting masks at the time of an exposure are not required to quarantine.
To help prevent the spread of the virus in classrooms, Brick officials plan to install new air conditioning and air handling systems in four schools by next summer, systems that would increase fresh air intake and thereby lower the risk of the virus' spread, Farrell said.
Protecting Brick students and staff from the virus requires "a shared responsibility and diligence of each member of our learning community to work together as a unified school district in response to COVID-19 circumstances," he said.
Amanda Oglesby is an Ocean County native who covers Brick, Barnegat and Lacey townships as well as the environment. She has worked for the Press for more than a decade. Reach her at @OglesbyAPP, firstname.lastname@example.org or 732-557-5701.
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