Masks will be optional in Hillsborough Township Public Schools when state mandate is lifted

Hillsborough Township Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Antunes announced at the Hillsborough Board of Education meeting on Sept. 14 that the district is still preparing to begin in-person instruction on Sept. 29. Pictured: Hillsborough High School

There has been debate throughout the Hillsborough Township Public Schools over the last week regarding the upcoming lift of the state’s mask mandate on March 7.

Acting Superintendent of Schools Kim Feltre brought some clarity to the situation during the Hillsborough Board of Education (HBOE) meeting that was held virtually on Feb. 17.

Feltre stated in her superintendent’s report that when the state’s mask mandate is lifted next month masks will be optional for students, teachers and school employees.

That said, Feltre pointed out that there are still many unanswered”questions surrounding other areas to stop the spread of COVID-19.

She said it is important that if any staff member or student has any symptoms of illness they stay home, adding that adhering to that guidance will help make the transition to optional masking for the school district “successful” and stop any possible spread of the virus.

A “full communication” of sorts will be sent out to the Hillsborough community later this month on the nuances and unanswered questions of the school district going the course of optional masking wearing when the state’s mask mandate is lifted, Feltre said.

“We want students in school returning to as much normalcy as possible as quickly as practicable, while keeping the students and staff as healthy and safe as possible,” Feltre said.

Feltre planned to make this announcement at the regularly scheduled in-person HBOE meeting that was held earlier in the week at Auten Road Intermediate School, but that meeting was terminated because of an incident that resulted in police being called to the school.

The incident stemmed from certain residents attending the public meeting not wearing masks or face coverings of any kind and denying to do so when asked by HBOE President Paul Marini at the start of the meeting.

Marini stated to all members of the public in attendance that by rule of the Executive Order still in place by Gov. Phil Murphy, students, staff and visitors are required to wear a mask when inside a school building. That order does not end after school hours, meaning masks are required to be worn at any BOE meeting.

According to Marini, there were around 10 people in the public forum not wearing masks and declined to do so when he announced that the meeting would not start until everyone in the building had a mask or face covering on.

The board took two breaks in their efforts to calm things down and have the meeting go on as scheduled before unanimously voting to terminate it and calling for a police presence.

At the board meeting on Feb. 17, Marini announced that all HBOE meetings until March 7 will be virtual due to the chaos over wearing masks from the in-person session on Feb. 14. The next HBOE meeting is scheduled for Feb. 28.

Marini revealed in his president’s speech that the board called for a police presence to calm down any tension between people at the meeting.

He said having a police presence be needed at a school board meeting is and should not be the norm.

Marini added that the meeting was supposed to“calm the nerves of many Hillsborough residents and never get to that point.

“Please understand that the board is a collection of residents who have volunteered their time to serve the community who have agreed to respect and follow the rules as set forth,” Marini said. “I would ask in the future that if we were in a similar situation that residents take their concerns to their state representatives and not to their local non-partisan school boards that cannot affect the change that is being fought for. It’s a no-win situation for all involved and prevents us from making progress as it relates to our school district and our children.”

The HBOE will be short a member for the time being as Jason Albanese has resigned from his position on the board, Marini revealed at the meeting.

Albanese was elected to HBOE in November. Marini thanked Albanese for his time on the board and said communication will take place in the coming weeks about filling his position on the board.

There was no comment at the meeting on the reasons why Albanese decided to step down from the board.

It was also mentioned in Marini’s report that newly elected Business Administrator Gerald Eckert will begin working in his new position on March 1. Eckert was originally scheduled to begin his duties as the school district’s new business administrator in May.