Mask Divide: District keeps mandate in place for now

Stinger Staff

This previously ran in our December 2021 print issue.

Since the beginning of November, mask mandates have gone through a tumultuous journey in the Pennsylvania government.

In early September, the Pennsylvania Department of Health ordered mask usage in all K-12 schools, early learning programs, and childcare facilities. Due to that mandate, students around the nation, including those at Emmaus High School, had to wear masks as they walked hallways and attended classes.

But on Nov. 8, Wolf announced a possible lift of the mandate. He estimated that the mask requirement would become a choice for K-12 school districts in Pennsylvania on Jan. 17, with the mandate still applying to early learning programs and child care facilities. 

Wolf’s Jan. 17 proposal has since sparked legal controversy regarding the initial requirement of masks in schools.

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court ruled on Nov. 10 that the Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary had no right to impose September’s mask mandate to begin with.

On Dec. 10 Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court decided to uphold the state’s Commonwealth Court decision to end Gov. Wolf’s masking mandate and defer masking decisions to individual school districts. Last week Dr. Kristen Campbell, superintendent of East Penn, issued a statement that the district has decided to retain the mask mandate, however, they will reevaluate the situation within two weeks of students’ return from winter break.

“The East Penn School District has made the decision, due to current conditions, including “high” level of COVID transmission in Lehigh County and the opportunity for our youngest students to be fully vaccinated, our district will continue to require masks in all school buildings,” Campbell wrote to residents.

As much as masks keep people safe, Emmaus High School teachers and students feel that the mandate has negatively impacted their equality of education, particularly in wellness-fitness classes.

Health teacher Eleni Assise believes that masks have created a block in many of her students and teaching styles.

“In the beginning of the school year, we can go outside and take our masks off. Whereas inside the masks have to be on and you only have a gym for 90 students and the aux gym is used for lunch,” Assisi said. “If the mask mandates [are] going away, it is a possibility that would be beneficial for indoor activities that increase their heart rate.” 

For gym especially, Assisi sees the benefits of not requiring masks.

“I would like them to make the best decision for the good of the group,” she said.  “In well-fit, it would kind of be nice [to unmask] because we are doing activities that increase your heart rate and your breathing, um so it can be a little bit of a struggle for some students when we are actively participating.”

School athletes feel different on their levels of comfort while wearing a mask during workouts. Along with gym classes, after-school sports have felt the barriers of masks.

Senior football player Matt Baraket feels that he hasn’t been able to get a good practice while wearing a mask because of the restriction it has on his breathing. 

 “It is just annoying because it is harder to breathe and I get really hot,” Baraket said. “Also, nobody really wears them above their nose…[and] I cannot breathe at all during indoor training.”

Sophomore baseball player Cohen Shadler thinks masks haven’t been a serious issue at all with workouts or games; in fact, he prefers them as a precaution.

“I don’t think masks are that big of a problem,” Cohen said. “I honestly prefer to wear masks because it keeps me safer.” 

Masking has also impacted club activities at the high school. 

“You can’t do field trips unless you are vaccinated and not everybody is,” said Jordyn Holzer, a member of Latin Club.

Even though the pandemic and masking in schools has had its negative effects, there have also been some positive effects. 

Health and Wellness teacher Jeannine Martini thinks this has positively impacted her style of teaching.

“It was helpful, because I developed new techniques and ways of teaching,” Martini said.  

With the sheer length of the pandemic and the politicization of masks, Emmaus’ students and teachers display mixed reactions to this proposal.  Although many find the mandate lifting essential, others remain on the fence.

Junior Ryan DeJohn sees Wolf’s proposals as reasonable.

“I think that it is probably because more kids are getting vaccinated, but the younger kids still are not vaccinated,” DeJohn said. “So, I think that because of the current rules and situation that it is fair.”

Similarly, junior Logan Dougherty sees this step as momentous and positive.

“I think it will be a lovely experience in the school,” Dougherty said. “I think you’ll be able to see everyone’s smiles and happy faces. I feel like life is going to get back to more normal after the masks come off in school.”

Social Studies department chair Melissa Moxley trusts the judgment and decisions of the professionals.

“[I’m] kind of torn back and forth,” she said. “Obviously I want to ensure the health and safety of students. If the scientific and medical professionals think that being unmasked is okay, then I trust what they say.”

On the other hand, football coach Harold Fairclough feels nervous about the possibility of unmasking at EHS.

“To be honest, [it’s] a little nerve-wracking because of I guess the science backs the fact that it’s harder to transmit wearing a mask,” Fairclough said. “It doesn’t completely stop it, but it’s not only COVID but I guess it helps prevent the common cold. So it will be interesting. A little nerve-wracking, a little scary, but we’ll be able to adapt and adjust . . .”

School nurse Tracey Miller believes that face coverings have been beneficial regardless of the decision to overturn the mask mandate.

“I think that masks have saved a lot of lives, and it may not be the student body,” Miller said. “It could be either grandparents or their aunts and uncles, or other people that they’re around, so I think that until the pandemic is over and we are actually in the endemic, I like masks.”

Others reflect on how mask usage has impacted their learning so far.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,” freshman Nikki Chan said. “It’s just kinda hard to breathe. That’s it.”

Sophomore Dabnes Rivera agrees that masking has had a low impact on students.

“It’s just a mask,” Rivera said. “It doesn’t affect me because it doesn’t debilitate my learning.”

The mask mandate will only be lifted from elementary and secondary schools, not early learning programs and childcare providers, like pre-schools. Sophomore Anthony Roque agrees with the decision of the state’s requirement.

“I think it’s very fair, because preschoolers aren’t mature enough to understand why we need the masks. They [the little kids] touch everything,” Roque said. “Also, most early learning children don’t have the obedience to keep their masks on in the first place.”

Hurley believes that the district will lift the mandate based on previous district actions.

“To be honest, I feel like the school will make them optional [in January] because of their decisions in the past, like when they allowed kids to come into school during the pandemic before the vaccine and when masks were optional before the mandate in the beginning of the school year,” Hurley said.

Junior Liam Schmidt predicts that the district will be strict about social distancing.

“They’re gonna be more strict about social distance and are going to spread more people out,” Schmidt said.

On the other hand, freshman Alex Rakowsky insists that the district won’t make any changes and will follow Gov. Wolf’s proposal. 

“I don’t see much of a difference,” Rakowsky said. “I’ve gotten used to the mask thing and so has everyone else.” 

Chan, when questioned about whether she would keep her mask if the requirement is lifted, showed no doubts in her response.

“Yes for me, because I still wanna be safe,” Chan said. “You never know what’s gonna happen.”