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Tyrone to announce mask exemption

TYRONE — A fiery working session for the Tyrone Area School Board on Tuesday night ended with a decision to draft an emergency medical exemption form for students wearing masks.

Roughly 150 people attended the public session at the Tyrone Area High School auditorium in hopes of hearing a vote on the newly announced mask mandate from Gov. Tom Wolf. Because the board was in a working session rather than a public meeting, a vote is not typically allowed.

Disgruntled parents and members of the community came to the microphone during public comment at the beginning of the session to share their frustrations with the school’s updated policies around COVID-19 and quarantining.

Keith Deal, pastor at Community Worship Center in Tyrone, asked the school board to stand against the mandate and be representatives of their community.

“We need you guys — the school board and the school administrators — to lead and stop following. That’s the point,” he said. “You gotta have a choice here: whether or not to put the mask on our kids. It’s just that simple. If people want to wear it, praise God. But if not, praise God.”

Russ Walk, son of board member Lori Walk, said that he has and will continue to send his kids to school without masks.

“I’m having my kids come here tomorrow — four of them — and they won’t have their masks on,” he said. “What are you going to do about it?”

Comments continued for almost three hours as parents came one after the other to make their thoughts known. The established five-minute time limit for each speaker was disregarded from the beginning of the session and each person was allowed to speak for as long as they wanted, with one person speaking for just over 15 minutes.

Superintendent Leslie Estep was a constant target of audience anger.

“I’m saying Leslie told you how to vote,” Russ Walk said. “You know how you have to vote. We know who is for us and who is against us.”

Once everyone had spoken, Lori Walk voiced her opinion.

“I firmly believe as an educator, as a Christian, that it is your right to choose,” she said. “I do not want to take your authority as a parent. I want to give you that authority back.”

This prompted demands from the audience that the board hold an immediate vote on a medical or emotional exemption form for the next day.

“We’re never going to stop. You’re going to see us every day,” one person shouted from the audience.

Estep explained that the board could not hold a vote during the session because of board regulations. Members of the crowd became louder and would not let her speak clearly. Eventually, they realized that they would not hear a definite answer during the session and slowly started filing out of the auditorium, yelling back at the stage on their way out.

At the end of the meeting, with most of the auditorium now empty, Estep asked the board what to do for today as students come back to school with the same situation. She explained that her worry was primarily for the students and the staff if parents went through with their threats to come to the school.

The majority of the board members agreed that an exemption form like those of other school districts would be the best move to appease the crowd.

High school principal Thomas Yoder explained the complications with an exemption form, saying that it would be difficult to differentiate between students who had turned in the form and those who were simply not wearing a mask. He asked the board what the staff and teachers are supposed to do in that situation.

The board agreed that for the time being, there would be no need to try to separate the students by exemption status in order to simplify the process for teachers.

After going around in circles for nearly an hour, the board asked Estep to create a modified version of a form that was already under revision to release and alert parents before the start of school today. Estep said she would send out a robo call to all the parents in the district, making them aware of the form and to try to stem the possibility of protests outside the school.

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