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Schools can’t make up their own mask rules

Pennsylvania’s public and private educational institutions have spent 2020-21 stuck between the rock of health officials’ guidance and the hard place of parents who want normalcy restored at their kids’ schools.

But we believe what happened this spring at Beaver County Christian School carries an important lesson — that school officials who choose to improperly administer or liberally interpret state mandates to placate parents do so at their own risk.

In August, the Pennsylvania Health Department announced that students would need to wear masks at all times. There were a few exceptions — while eating or drinking, if the mask interferes with the safe operation of equipment or performance of a task, and in the event that a student needs a socially distanced “face-covering break” lasting no more than 10 minutes.

The Department of Education also noted exemptions could be given to students with “a medical or mental health condition or disability, documented in accordance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or IDEA, that precludes the wearing of a face covering in school.”

Those accommodations, the department said, should be made “in partnership with the student’s health care provider, school nurse and IEP/504 team.”

The same month, Steve Wellendorf, the head principal of Beaver County Christian School, sent an email to parents that essentially told them they could get around the mask requirement during instruction time if they notified the school that their children were facing anxiety over the mask interfering with their ability to learn and interact.

“You can refer to the attached sample letter that I have included. We will not require any type of additional documentation …” the principal stated in the email.

Clearly, this sort of undiagnosed and undocumented mask anxiety isn’t what state health department officials had in mind when they set “mental health conditions” as grounds for an exemption.

Yet, Wellendorf told the Beaver County Times that “a decent amount” of the BCCS community used the letter to eschew masks during classes. Students were told to still wear them in common areas.

The school’s move, the Times reported, “came from parents concerned about their children and teens spending eight hours a day behind sometimes uncomfortable and restrictive coverings.”

For a while, things were quiet. But at the end of March, students started getting sick. An outbreak of COVID-19 traced to spring musical “Good News!” which ran March 17-20, sent all students home for virtual instruction until after Easter.

Wellendorf said he is unsure if students in the musical were socially distanced or wore masks or face shields at practices and performances, saying “I was not in during rehearsals.”

Multiple musical cast and crew members across most grade levels, including the lead, ended up testing positive for COVID-19.

It’s likely that at least some of those infected students were in classrooms for hours surrounded by unmasked pupils due to the school’s high number mask exceptions that were — we’ll say it — groundless.

All that, plus Wellendorf’s saying he doesn’t know whether students followed mask-wearing and social-distancing guidelines during play practice, makes his assertion that “Our thing is to err on the side of caution” laughable.

By bowing to parents’ pressure to normalize the student experience this year through liberal granting of mask-wearing exemptions, we believe the Beaver County Christian School created a climate that was, at best, lenient, and, at worst, lackadaisical about the need to mask up for safety.

And that’s just the sort of climate that allows COVID-19 to thrive.

We implore school leaders throughout the commonwealth to put student safety first. Telling parents how their kids can circumvent a portion of the state’s mask mandate sets a tone that undercuts their ability to do that.

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