KNOX - Keystone School District will actively enforce the state Department of Health's face mask mandate starting Oct. 18.
The decision came Oct. 4 after two hours of public comment and a 6-3 vote.
Voting in favor of active enforcement of the mandate were Trisha Dixon, Stacy Thompson, Jim Beary, Greg Barrett, Ken Swartfager and Randy Burr. Opposed were John Slagle, Dwayne Van Tassel and Dustin Swartfager.
In the end, it was a 1955 state law the board cited in agreeing the state Department of Health's mandate must be followed.
After more than an hour of public comment, Ken Swartfager said the board is restricted by the Disease Prevention and Control Act.
Ken Swartfager explained that in the 1950s when the law was under consideration and development, local county, municipal and school governments were given the opportunity to set their own health and safety guidelines.
But because Clarion County, the townships and boroughs in the school district and the school district itself did not set their own health and safety regulations, all of the entities surrendered that power to the state Department of Health.
"So, by default, we have to abide by commonwealth law," Ken Swartfager said. "We don't like (the mandate), but we have to take care of your child and the state wants us to use masks."
Ken Swartfager also pointed out the law and its related ordinances are specific in outlining penalties and fines and noted anyone with any kind of state-issued professional or business license could face non-renewal or revocation of those licenses if they knowingly violate the law.
Ken Swartfager acknowledged the 150 to 200 people in the audience nearly all of whom opposed the mask ordinance but added the school board represents all district taxpayers, including parents in favor of the masking requirement and property-owners without children in the school system.
Ken Swartfager told the audience members if they wanted to change the law, they need to take their fight to Harrisburg.
Jason Say, who co-founded the "My Kid My Choice" group at Keystone, countered that changing the law through Harrisburg could "take years" and any quick action now would likely be vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf.
Rebekah Elder, owner of Bekah's Boutique in Knox, said she opposes the mask mandate but understands the board members' reluctance to violate the law.
Elder said she was concerned when the state ordered businesses like hers to close last year that she could face licensing penalties if she violated the shut-down order.
Elder encouraged the people at the meeting to work together and with the school board to change the law.
Beary, who made the original motion two weeks ago to actively enforce the mandate, amended his motion to begin enforcement on Oct. 11, but Slagle, board president, asked Beary to move the date to Oct. 18.
Slagle said the state legislature is considering Senate Bill 846, which would allow parents or legal guardians to opt their child out of wearing a face covering or mask despite the mandate imposed by the state Secretary of Health or school board.
The final motion included enforcement of the masking mandate as ordered by the state department of health beginning Oct. 18, with district administrators empowered to adjust accordingly if Senate Bill 846 becomes law.
District Superintendent Michael McCormick said last month the parents of students who refused to wear a mask would be notified of their child's violation and if the parent did not convince the student to wear a mask, the student would be sent home.
Say, Elder, Leigh Black, Dana Sloat, Abigail Simchek, Jen Stephens, Randall "Buck" Weaver and Gina Clark all spoke during the public comment period. All but Clark stated opposition to the masking mandate.
Black told the board members she believes they are protected from liability lawsuits by sovereign immunity and expressed her surprise that some board members did not know what the phrase means.
Black said some of the COVID-19 mitigation efforts, including contact tracing, masking and social distancing are overreaching.
"When our children step inside these doors, they are treated like disease-ridden lepers," said Black.
Say said he wants to support the members of the school board, but realizes some members might not want to serve as the COVID emergency continues. Say said there are several people including himself willing to serve on the board and "stand up to Harrisburg."
Say said other school districts "are calling Gov. Wolf's bluff."
"I would encourage you to do the same," said Say.
Say added if the board moves ahead with enforcing the mask mandate, "We'll see you in court."
Sloat told the board she believes the mask mandate is child abuse.
"It (the mask mandate) is not about safety, it's about control," said Sloat.
Simchek and Stephens both said the masking mandates and social distancing is negatively affecting the mental health of many students.
Stephens, a nurse, said the government is exaggerating the impact of COVID.
"It's the flu on steroids," said Stephens. "That's all it is."
Clark questioned the Department of Health's change of course on recognizing the presence of COVID antibodies when quarantining students.
Clark said the DOH originally said students with antibodies did not need to be quarantined after exposure to another person with COVID but recently changed that stance and now recommends quarantine.
Two people spoke in favor of the masking mandate.
Ginger McGiffin, mother of a high school student, said she believes masks do prevent the spread of the virus and encouraged the board to enforce the mandate.
McGiffin was not necessarily afforded the same courtesy she showed for those opposed to the mandate and had to speak above a growing round of audience talking, and in some cases, shouting.
McGiffin said the mandate matters to people who have lost loved ones to COVID.
Michelle Kahl, a mental health therapist, said she had a bout of COVID about a year ago and still feels the effects.
Kahl said COVID has struck her immediate family and the effects of the virus worry her. Kahl said she fears if her husband were to go to the hospital with COVID it is possible she might never see him again.
Kahl said it took her two months to recover from COVID enough to return to work.
"I was very afraid of losing my business," said Kahl. She said she knows students are experiencing many difficulties during the pandemic.
"But wearing a mask is not child abuse," said Kahl. "Please make mandatory masking a priority."