EXETER TWP., Pa. – With news that the Exeter Township School Board would vote on a health and safety plan for the 2021-22 school year, a larger-than-usual crowd turned out to the Reiffton School Tuesday night to make sure its voices were heard.
The meeting was moved to the school to accommodate the anticipated larger audience but that move somewhat backfired on the board.
The audience became impatient with the board and often resorted to shouting and interrupting board members, which eventually led to a temporary recess of the meeting.
While the meeting did result in the board voting to eliminate masks as a COVID-19 mitigation effort for both teachers and students, it retained the mask mandate for all students using any district transportation.
That part of the plan did not please the approximately 40 parents in attendance.
Pennsylvania Avenue resident Marybeth Gardella said she was representing the Berks County chapter of Moms for Liberty, which she said has a mission to hold school boards accountable.
"The lines of parental authority have been blurred," Gardella said. "Parental rights and our constitutional rights do not end at the classroom door. We had assumed you were working in the best interest of families and children, but COVID-19 was used as a political weapon against our families. We now know you are working against parents to implement ideologies that go against many beliefs."
Like some of the other parents who spoke, Gardella attempted to draw a link between the health and safety plan and the topic of equity and critical race theory.
Critical race theory is actually a legal term coined in the 1970s but has become a buzz phrase which has been sparking conflicts between parents and school boards all across the country.
The American Bar Association defines critical race theory saying it "critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers."
Gardella went on to say parents will be requesting and reviewing all curriculum.
"We will be watching what is enforced on our children," she said. "I am requesting the school board president direct the superintendent to place the next meeting of the Equity and Excellence Committee on the calendar so that the public can attend."
The board did not have any matters relating to the topic of equity on its agenda and it was reported that the committee did not meet this month.
St. Lawrence Avenue resident Reynaldo Mozo reminded the board members that it is their job to represent the members of the community.
"We want the mask mandate gone — completely gone," Mozo said. "We want masks to be optional across the board."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance on July 9 which stated that masks should be worn indoors by all individuals, age 2 and older, who are not fully vaccinated. A week later, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that all students, teachers and staff — regardless of vaccination status — wear masks while indoors in school.
As the board prepared to vote on the health and safety plan, members of the audience became agitated and began to shout at the board members that they are not listening to the taxpayers and that they are refusing to engage with the community.
Board Vice President Hunter Ahrens attempted to comment on the plan but Mozo refused to allow him to talk by interrupting him and shouting that he is a taxpayer and has a right to speak.
Board President Allison Wilson then directed a member of the Exeter police department to remove Mozo from the meeting.
"I just wanted to say that I appreciate the work the administration has done," Ahrens said. "It's a good step in the right direction and exactly what we need to be doing. We have a responsibility to the law and that's exactly what we are doing."
The comment, combined with the removal of Mozo, caused the audience to become unruly as they continued to shout at the board members that they do not listen to the members of the community.
Wilson then recessed the meeting for 10 minutes, saying the meeting had become out of control.
The approved health and safety plan also states that physical distancing will be observed to the maximum extent feasible and will continue to be recommended for indoor and outdoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status.
The plan does not mandate COVID-19 vaccinations or COVID-19 testing for students or staff but it does state, "School nurses will assist families in identifying a testing location should they wished to have their child tested."
Regarding efforts to provide vaccines to the school community, the plan referenced that the district collaborated with Walmart to administer 7,000 vaccines in the district's facilities in 2021. The plan states the district "will continue to collaborate with local health care providers and government agencies regarding targeted areas of need and will continue to serve as a vaccination host site if called upon."
When the board returned, it quickly proceeded with the remaining agenda without much discussion.
Before adjournment, board member Michele Stratton made a statement about the challenge of serving as a school board member.
"For every five emails I get telling me how harmful masks are, I receive another five asking me to vote to keep masks," Stratton said. "So, which way do I vote? On social media, I am told I'm corrupt and have no concerns. I am asked how I can sleep at night."
Stratton explained the challenge of making decisions does not fall lightly on any of her fellow school board members.
Stratton also noted she does not often speak at meetings.
"I try to listen really hard with the intent to understand," she said. "I believe the people in this room have more in common than not. I hear passion and a love for children. We all have that in common. I hope we can all see and believe this."