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HASD makes masks optional

Board passes motion 5-4; tables decision on contract tracing, quarantining

HOLLIDAYSBURG — The Hollidaysburg Area School Board voted 5-4 to allow optional masking in its schools Wednesday night.

Board members Carmen Bilek and Jennifer Costanza, who were recently elected to four-year terms in November’s election, were vital in the meeting’s motions.

During the first public comment session, Duncansville resident Michael Eardley called for the board to make a motion to eliminate masks, contact tracing and quarantines. Eardley cited his own child’s experiences in multiple quarantines, saying he felt his child received less of an education because of quarantining.

After approval of a variety of business items, Costanza initially made a motion to make masking optional for students.

“As the parents have voiced, I feel that we should be able to make masking optional. If a child or parent decides that they want a mask, they can wear a mask. But if they don’t, they don’t need to,” Costanza said.

On the subject of contact tracing, Costanza said that it is not benefiting students as far as their education goes.

“We are a school district. Our main job is to focus on educating our students,” she said.

However, the district solicitor said because of the Sunshine Act, there would need to be a motion to amend the night’s agenda because the change wasn’t posted during the three-day minimum period before the meeting.

It briefly appeared that there would be no vote, causing the members of the public to voice concern over the inability to make a motion until next month.

After clarification from the solicitor, Costanza rescinded the initial motion to make masking optional and instead made a motion to amend the night’s agenda.

The board voted 5-4, approving the ability to amend the meeting’s agenda. Then Constanza remade her original motion to make masking optional for students. The motion moved to a vote, passing 5-4. Costanza, Bilek, Emanuel Nichols, Kenneth Snyder and Nicole Hartman voted in favor of optional masking, while Lonna Frye, Doug Stephens, Scott Brenneman and Ronald Sommer voted no.

After the optional masking motion passed, Bilek made a motion to amend the agenda again to discuss the removal of contact tracing and quarantines. The board approved the motion, which led Bilek to make a formal motion for the removal of contact tracing and quarantines.

The board solicitor recommended for legal and liability reasons that the district continue to implement contact tracing and quarantine, following Pennsylvania Department of Health and Department of Education guidance.

Superintendent Robert Gildea said he was in support of the legal advice given by the solicitor. Board members Brenneman, Sommer, Frye and Stephens echoed Gildea by giving their support for following the solicitor’s advice and against the removal.

The board moved into executive session to discuss contact tracing and quarantines about 8:05 p.m. Board members did not return to the library for nearly an hour. Upon return, Bilek announced the board was tabling the motion until the next board meeting.

There are action items for the board to take between now and the next meeting on Jan. 12. Board President Nicole Hartman said the board instructed the administration to develop new parameters and that the health and safety plan shall be a line item on the agenda each month for discussion and for the administration to seek a second legal opinion.

Hartman also said the board is waiting on the outcome of a Pennsylvania court decision regarding masking. The meeting adjourned shortly after 9 p.m.

In other board action, officials approved the school district’s tax levies and other revenue sources to be sufficient to balance the final budget for the 2022-23 school year based on maintaining current tax rates or by increasing rates by an amount less than or equal to the Act 1 index.

The Act 1 index applicable to the school district is calculated by the state Department of Education, according to the board meeting agenda. The applicable index for the next fiscal year is 4.2%, meaning Hollidaysburg cannot raise the real estate taxes, or any other tax supporting public education, by an amount exceeding 4.2%.

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