Parents protest NJ face-mask mandate before Wall BOE

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FILE PHOTO / THE COAST STAR

WALL TOWNSHIP — A group of parents and students attended the township board of education meeting Tuesday night to protest students’ continued use of masks while in the classroom.

The school board said it is bound by Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive orders, which as of Wednesday still mandated the use of masks in indoor settings, including schools. 

While neighboring states such as New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware have lifted indoor public mask mandates, Gov. Murphy has remained firm on the issue, although he has lifted outdoor mask mandates. 

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The federal Centers for Disease Control eased restrictions on wearing masks last week for those who are fully vaccinated, who can stop wearing masks essentially everywhere, with exceptions such as traveling in an airplane. 

CDC Director Rochelle Walesnky said at a White House press briefing on Monday that masks should remain worn in schools for the remainder of the school year regardless of vaccination status.

Gov. Murphy is thus far resisting calls for an end to New Jersey’s mask mandate until 70 percent of residents age 16 and older are vaccinated. The rate is currently below 50 percent.

Nearly all of Wall Township’s students are back in their schools for in-person instruction on a half-day schedule. 

According to Superintendent Tracy Handerhan, on Tuesday, 92 percent of the elementary school students are attending in-person; 94 percent of Wall Intermediate School students; and 80 percent of Wall High School students. The remainder of the district’s students opted to finish the school year on a fully-remote program, which the school does not plan to offer next fall.

For the duration of the school day, students must wear masks while in the classroom or hallways. 

Board attorney Dennis McKeever said he and the board members understand the concerns of  parents. However, he said personal beliefs, of the public or board members, do not matter in this case as the school is under the direction of the governor.

“I appreciate the frustration that a lot of parents feel, but when we’re operating this school we are required, in my view, to follow the guidance that we receive from the governor’s office, from the commissioner of education, from the Department of Health,” Mr. McKeever said.

“Tonight, for this meeting, the policy of this board of education in this school system is that when we’re here, we have to keep our masks on. Could that change? I think it could. Will it change? I think it will. But it’s not changed for this evening. And I understand you’re frustrated …” 

One parent, Patty Nowalski, said her daughter has been subject to “mask-shaming” at school, and said kids are suffering mentally and physically from the masks.

“My biggest problem obviously is the masks. There should be no masks. We never should’ve masked these kids. It is abuse. They’re being mask-shamed,” she said. 

Ms. Nowalski described “mask shaming” as being repeatedly reminded throughout the day by teachers and school officials to keep their masks over their faces.

“There’s no love. There’s no ‘Excuse me honey, you forgot your mask.’ It’s mask-shaming all day long. It’s disgusting. As parents, we need to do better. We need to say no. We need to take these masks off.”

Her daughter, Faith, grade six, spoke at the meeting, saying she is being mask-shamed at Wall Intermediate School, and that the masks have resulted in her suffering from acne.

“I am absolutely terrified to walk in the hallway and be mask-shamed by a teacher,” she said at the meeting. “At Wall Intermediate, they make [us] wear a mask while we are outside doing physical activities. I am suffocating and half the students in my class are [too]. Whenever I take down my mask to breathe or have a break I will always get told by a teacher, not politely, to tell me to put my mask up. 

“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous. I come home from school everyday having to wash my face because I have acne and it hurts so bad. I am absolutely over the masks and I think we should change [the policy].”

Resident Brian Messeliner told the board the mask “jig is up,” and asked the board: “If we can go to any place right now in town and do this, why are we making our kids sit down all day long with their masks on?”

Piper Waitzel, who said she has three children in the district, criticized the board for its handling of the last year, and was particularly upset with the district’s refusal to return to full days to finish the year, even calling for board members to resign if they are not willing to make “hard decisions.”

“I think we can all agree that the last 14 months have been challenging to say the least. I am here to voice my displeasure at how this district has chosen to deal with these challenges,” Ms. Waitzel said.

“I know these are volunteer positions and that these are hard decisions, but if you’re not willing to make them, please step down so someone can stand up and make them.”

Ms. Handerhan responded saying that serving students lunch remains the largest obstacle for the school for going full-day under current guidelines.

There was also an appearance from GOP gubernatorial candidate Hirsh Singh, of Atlantic City, who spoke at the meeting against the school’s mask policy. 

He said that in the state’s Restart and Recovery plan, masks may be excused if they pose a health risk to students. He proposed the district declare that the masks cause mental health issues in students, and remove the policy.

“As an exception, you from the board could determine that you feel that [masks] are causing mental health within the kids, it’s causing psychological issues with the kids, and exempt all students in the school [from wearing masks],” he said, adding he believes other districts would follow suit.

Kim Rubino, who spoke in her scrubs and said she practices medicine, criticized the board for its mask policy as well.

“You are allowing COVID to take control of everything that you do in education. Stop trying to do the job that other people are there to do. In less than a year we were taken over by COVID … but in a few months we conquered and it’s done,” she said, saying Monmouth Medical and Jersey Shore hospitals have been running “normally” since July 2020.

“We wear masks, and we’ll probably wear masks for the rest of my life but I’ll do that if my kids can take off their masks and have a normal life because they deserve it because this is all malarky.”

BOE member Christine Steitz responded to the criticism from the public, as well as addressed the division caused by community members on social media.

“What kind of a community do you want for the kids? You’ve asked people to step up. Many of you didn’t even listen to the responses as so many side conversations went on. If you think for one minute that anyone up here doesn’t care about your kids, you’ve lost your mind,” Ms. Steitz said.

“You have got to be understanding of the parameters we have to face, and when our administrators who we trust to take care of our kids tell us it’s not possible, I support that,” she said.

“I think to suggest that our administrators or our educators don’t care about our kids or they’re too lazy or disgusting as I’m seeing all over social media – it’s awful, and it’s getting us, as a community, nowhere.” 

“I understand the patience has worn thin on these issues, and it has for me too,” said BOE member Chistopher San Filippo.

Member Adam Nasr said the district has to continue to “rely on the experts” for guidance, and said although this is difficult “we see a finish line.”

Mr. Addonizio thanked the residents for their concerns.

“I appreciate everyone that came out tonight, and we certainly understand your frustration because we’re all frustrated,” he said.

“Everything we do is for the benefit of the students. Is it what everyone wants right now? Absolutely not. I can also tell you there are people in our school community who still want masks, and are still very happy going half-day,” he said.

He dismissed suggestions that the district ignore the governor’s orders.

“Unfortunately … we’re not in a position to just throw out what [Gov. Murphy] says. All you have to do is look at the restaurants who decided [to go against the governor’s orders]. They fined them, they shut them down, they suspended liquor licenses, all kinds of things. What can the governor do to a school district? Well, the state can take us over and that’s something we don’t want by any stretch of the imagination.”

SENIOR WALK CANCELED

One of Wall High School’s favorite traditions is the Senior Walk, in which graduating seniors return to walk through their old elementary schools before saying goodbye and heading off to college or the workforce. Seniors say goodbye to their old teachers while the younger students cheer them on and bid them farewell.

This year’s walk was canceled due to COVID concerns, said Ms. Handerhan, mainly surrounding logistical questions of transporting all of the students to their former schools. 

Ms. Handerhan said it would be a shame if a student was not able to walk at his or her graduation because they were exposed to the virus during the walk.

High school seniors Grace Killea and Anna Williams, both class representatives, asked once more for the administration to reconsider.

“We’ve been totally cheated out of the end of our junior year and our entire senior year, and we can’t really do anything. And we thought maybe if we could do this outside, we’d be able to have something to remember,” Grace said.

There is a petition now circulating on change.org begun by resident Sorca Gill supporting the Senior Walk, with over 800 signatures. Ms. Gill has volunteered to head a committee to organize a socially distanced senior walk.

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