East Penn School Board votes to return to optional masking starting March 1st


East Penn resident Jared Jenkins speaks in support of optional masking within schools. Photo by Alice Adams.

Devon Helmer, Managing Editor

At the Feb. 28 school board meeting, the East Penn School Board voted unanimously to return to optional masking in East Penn facilities and buses. 

The board passed a motion to update their current health and safety plan, which included the modification to mask requirements. In addition to these changes, the updated health and safety plan eliminates contact tracing and quarantining of students who have been exposed or have come in close contact with other students who have tested positive for COVID-19. 

The updates to the district’s health and safety plan take effect March 1. 

These changes come after the CDC updated their masking guidelines on Feb. 25, which suggest that nearly 70% of Americans can stop wearing masks. New guidelines categorize counties into low, medium, and high risk; their level is determined by COVID-19-related hospitalizations within the past week, percentage of local hospital beds occupied by these COVID-19 patients, and new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the previous week. 

Only counties that find themselves in the category of high-risk are recommended to require their area to mask; this guideline also applies to masking in schools. As of July, the CDC has recommended mandated masking within schools, regardless of the level of risk within a community. With the revised guidelines, communities of low and medium risk will be able to dictate their own masking requirements, giving many the opportunity to enter school mask-free.

Community members spoke about the updates to the health and safety plan, with six out of the 10 speakers during this section of the meeting speaking on the topic of masks.  

East Penn resident and long-time advocate for the district’s switch to optional masking Jennifer Henry spoke in response to the board’s vote that evening.

“I wish every board member could [have] seen how excited the kids were today, hoping that they would be able to see each other’s faces tomorrow. They were so excited,” Henry said. “I really hope that East Penn does the right thing tonight and makes masks optional for students and staff.”

In addition to changes included in the plan, the board discussed other items that have an impact on the socialization of students and would later be implemented as a result of the passed vote. These include the reconsideration of field trips that were turned away due to travel restrictions or increased travel difficulties that coincide with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In addition to altered guidelines surrounding student field trips, parameters surrounding student lunch rooms, specifically the transition of school district gymnasiums into cafeteria overflows to allow for social distancing, are also subject to change in this two-week period. The school board spoke of returning students to their original lunchrooms and returning these overflow cafeteria spaces to their designated use as gymnasiums.

Community member Jason Jenkins was particularly insistent about making masking optional, continually calling out the school board for what he deemed their “hypocritical” nature in making health and safety decisions.

“I don’t care what you [the school board] say to me, but do not tell me that you’re following the science,” Jenkins said. “If you were following the science, kids would have been the first people to go unmasked.”

The East Penn School District now joins several other local schools that have decided to make masking optional for their students, including Parkland School District, Northampton Area School District, Nazareth Area School District, and Catasauqua Area School District. 

Additional reporting by Ayaan Shah.