Face mask issue raised at Lawrence school board meeting

PHOTO COURTESY OF ARTS COUNCIL OF PRINCETON

The battle between the masks and the mask-nots in school is not over, as some parents urged Lawrence Township Public Schools officials to buck Gov. Phil Murphy’s mask mandate for students at the beginning of the school year.

Murphy said in June that face masks would not be mandatory and that school districts could make their own decisions about them for the 2021-22 school year. But earlier this month, Murphy issued an executive order requiring face masks in public, private and parochial schools.

Parents who objected to Murphy’s reversal on the mask mandate were joined at the Aug. 11 school board meeting by Patricia Johnson, who is the Republican Party candidate for one of two state Assembly seats in the 15th Legislative District.

In his remarks to the school board, Superintendent of Schools Ross Kasun outlined plans for the 2021-22 school year. The focus is on the health, safety and well-being of students and staff, and minimizing the potential spread of COVID-19, he said.

The district’s plans have to be “fluid” because things change on a daily basis, Kasun said.

The goal is to ensure that students can attend school in person, five days per week.

There are backup plans to keep students connected who may have to quarantine at home if they have been exposed to or contract COVID-19, Kasun said. The plans do not include remote learning, which Murphy has also banned.

“We are simply trying to maximize the chances to be open daily and minimize the risk of the spread of COVID-19 and have students and staff here every day,” Kasun said.

This means school district officials will enforce Murphy’s mask mandate, he said. The mandate is binding. The district cannot pick and choose which mandates to follow because there are legal consequences, he said.

“Like it or not, we have to follow this mandate,” Kasun said.

Everyone will be required to wear a face mask unless there is a documented medical reason for not complying.

Students who do not wear a face mask may be removed from school, Kasun said. It will be treated like any other infraction of school district rules.

Kasun pointed out that students wore face masks last year in school, and there had not been any problems. No student has refused to wear a mask, he said. He said he had observed students wearing masks while they walk to school, even though it was not a requirement.

Asking for parents’ support, Kasun said that “this pandemic has been awful in so many ways. We still have a long way to go.”

That support, however, was not forthcoming from several in attendance, who continued to object to the face mask requirement.

Johnson said she was speaking on behalf of township residents.

“We are having a conflict. People want masks, people don’t want masks,” Johnson said.

While school district officials say they must obey Murphy’s executive order on masks, “you need to work for the children of Lawrence Township and their parents. You need to represent us,” Johnson said.

To bolster the case against mandatory mask wearing, Johnson presented the school board with several studies and reports. She urged the school board members to read the studies and then decide whether children should wear masks.

“I am here tonight because I believe if we give up one of our civil liberties, we are in jeopardy of giving them all up. We need to fight for what we believe in: to keep the freedom of choice,” she said.

There are parents who are opposed to mask wearing and to vaccination against COVID-19, Johnson said. They have that right as a civil liberty “and we need to respect that. We need to find a way to make it work,” she said.

Hilary Jersey, who lives in Lawrence, urged the school board to connect with other school districts that favor making masks optional. She said the district should speak to elected officials at the state level and work toward making masks optional.

“This is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ when the policy comes to mask mandates or any other health recommendations. My family complied last school year, but we are not going to do it again.”

Jersey said her children suffered health issues last year that could be easily avoided by not wearing a mask.

While some speakers opposed the mask mandate, other speakers praised school district officials for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hannah Thompson, who is a Lawrence High School graduate, said she was “very thankful [that] you guys are enforcing masks.”

Thompson said she was a nursing assistant at Hackensack University Hospital during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, and saw firsthand the effects of the disease. It “absolutely” affects children, she said.

“If you are not terrified for your children, you are not paying attention,” Thompson said.

Rebecca Thompson also praised officials for “doing your best in a terrible situation.” She is Hannah Thompson’s mother.

“I have spoken to many other parents and I think most parents would agree that they would do anything to keep their children safe,” Rebecca Thompson said. “Wearing a mask does not hurt people.”