EXETER TWP., Pa. – The Exeter Township School Board members heard a plea Tuesday night from township resident and retired teacher Christine Winslow, asking the district to drop the mask or face-covering mandate for children.
Winslow had also appeared before the board on May 24 as a representative of a grassroots effort known as Pennsylvania Parents Protecting Children.
This time around, Winslow said she had the support of 236 community members and presented a petition to the board.
"There is a groundswell of public opinion," Winslow said. "Last time there were a few of us, but we've been talking to the community, including teachers, grandparents, bus drivers and people coming by on the street as we hold up our signs."
"I appeal to you as human beings and board members who have a responsibility for the health and welfare of our children," she said. "So far, we have been met with silence. I haven't heard you spend one ounce of time talking about the safety and welfare of our children, and that shakes me up."
"I'd like one of you to be brave tonight and open the discussion and make a motion (to remove the mask policy)," Winslow added.
Board President Allison Wilson reminded Winslow that the meeting was a Committee of the Whole meeting, which means no votes can be taken.
Green Tree Road resident Rochel Dobraniecki also told the board she wants the kids back in school without masks.
"It inhibits them from breathing and they get headaches," Dobraniecki said. "My son came back home (for virtual learning) because he couldn't hear people talking or get the attention of teachers. He had a better time with virtual, but I don't condone virtual because the kids have to be in a social situation."
Board member Sharon McLendon said that the problem with the request is that children have not been vaccinated.
"None of the children under the age of 12 have been vaccinated," McLendon said. "There is evidence that masks do protect from germs. We have to follow the guidelines of the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Children can and are getting this virus."
That prompted Coral Lane resident Kelly Lord to tell the board that she hopes the district does not get to the point of pushing vaccines on children.
"There have been 10,000 hospitalizations from vaccines alone and they are hitting the target of our children," Lord said. "There were 27 (COVID-19) deaths of children under the age of 18. There are more hospitalizations and deaths of children right now from vaccines."
"We need to study the science before we push things on our children," she added. "Following Fauci is the wrong thing to do," she said, referring to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Board Vice President Hunter Ahrens said that although he has taken the vaccine himself, he would never support a district requirement that would force children to be vaccinated.
"I know that there are a lot of strong feelings with the grief associated and the science in dispute on both sides," Ahrens said. "The data is hard to interpret and I would ask you to be gracious with us as we are being overloaded with this information."
Ahrens also said it will be critical for the district to watch and see what evolves from the state on mask-wearing.
"I don't want to be out of step with the state," he said. "I don't see the wisdom in doing that. I quite frankly do not want to wear my mask, but our responsibility is to abide by the authorities set over us."
Board member Hurey I. Miller said his wife works on the front lines of the pandemic in a local hospital.
"COVID-19 is still here and people are still dying every day," Miller said. "I don't want our kids to be in danger. If the Department of Health tells us it is ok, the kids will take the masks off."
At the end of May, the state Department of Health announced it will no longer require unvaccinated people to wear masks in public on June 28 or once 70% of adults are fully vaccinated — whichever comes first.
In other business, the board agreed to defer a vote on a proposed LERTA program until it can be discussed further at a future Committee of the Whole meeting.
Ahrens asked the board to consider allowing the district to participate, along with the township and the county, in a LERTA program.
LERTA is an acronym standing for Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance, and is a program mean to incentivize property investment and redevelopment projects.
Having LERTA in place is attractive to potential developers of businesses because it allows the property owners to pay taxes on any improvements to the land in increments over a set period, up to 10 years. LERTA does not affect the current taxes being paid on a property.
Ahrens asked the board to consider LERTA as a way of being competitive with other areas in the county to attract new business.
Ahrens said attracting new businesses to the township is a way of taking some property tax burdens off homeowners.
Board members were not immediately sold on the idea and said they wanted to get data from other school districts which have implemented LERTA.
Board member Michael B. Jupina Jr. said he would like to see how many businesses have actually taken advantage of LERTA and how many new jobs have been created.
"Ultimately we want to build a tax base for the future, and I would like to see the effects of LERTAs on communities that already passed this," Jupina said.
Tax credits for volunteer firefighters
Ahrens also asked the board to allow the solicitor to determine whether the district could proceed with a proposal to give volunteer firefighters property tax credits as an incentive to attract new members.
"The Pennsylvania legislature passed a law that allows school districts to give a tax rebate up to 100%," Ahrens said. "It's a worthy thing to look at because the cost to taxpayers would be millions of dollars if the township had to provide fire service to the community without volunteers."
Wilson informed the board, though, that districts have been advised by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association not to pass any such resolutions because there is a legal question of the constitutionality of allowing schools to provide tax credits.
Board member John T. Fidler said he doesn't want to see Exeter be a pioneer in legal matters.
"I don't want Exeter to be the first case to go before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court," Fidler said. "This will be a waiting period, because I don't know if there is any information forthcoming."
The board agreed it should not use the resources of its solicitor at this time to examine the issue.