To mask or not to mask, that is the HVRSD question

As New Jersey prepares to eliminate its mask mandate for schools and child care centers next month, Hopewell Valley parents weighed in on the topic at a school board meeting on Monday.

Superintendent Dr. Rosetta Treece said no decision has been made yet on how the District will revise its policies, and several school board members emphasized that they were open to input as they determined how best to move forward with masking after March 7 — the official date set by Governor Phil Murphy to lift the mandate.

A planned webinar for February 21 at 7pm will present an additional opportunity for parents and students to hear from the school district and medical professionals about the issue, although the School Board discussed changing the date of that event to accommodate a Hopewell Township meeting the same night.

Treece called the Governor’s announcement earlier this month the “elephant in the room” in her remarks, saying that guidance is expected from the Departments of Education and Health in the next week on how the lifting of the mandate will affect schools. Although the State will soon no longer require masks in schools, Treece said it’s unclear what that means for masks on buses or changes to existing quarantine requirements. Student mental health is also a factor, she added.

“We’re all tired of wearing these things. That is something we’re considering as well,” she said, noting that the District had always expected to ultimately transition out of masks.

Three community members spoke in favor of the District’s COVID-19 policies and four delivered remarks against masking that focused on concerns about the social and emotional impact on students.

Aside from those issues, the District’s quarantine and masking requirements dominated the public discussion — as they did at January’s school board meeting. The main point of contention is that the District has stricter quarantine protocols for students who are unvaccinated, which some parents say has led to bullying of those students by their peers and even teachers. Dr. Treece said the District does not tolerate bullying on any grounds and that reported cases have been investigated.

Catherine Fulmer-Hogan of Hopewell Township spoke Monday in response to comments made at the previous meeting, saying she was disappointed to hear the District’s policies painted as an equity issue. At that meeting, Township resident Peter DiDonato used the theme of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech to suggest that unvaccinated children were discriminated against by the District.

“If folks believe that we are to be a school community that is just, equitable, inclusive, and celebrates diversity, then we don’t turn the tools to further it into a weapon that brings about harm and then wield it with disrespect in the face of the individuals who’ve been appointed and elected to serve it,” Fulmer-Hogan said.

Kate Hamm of Pennington spoke about the mental health challenges students are facing.

“Our children have been subjected to humiliation and bullying. Our children have endured unkind comments. Our children have been segregated,” Hamm said.

Pat Branham of Hopewell Township spoke after Hamm to say that there is “zero supporting evidence on the effectiveness of masking healthy children to mitigate viral transmission.” He said that the public has been subjected to psychological abuse and gaslighting as well as a “sustained promotion of fear and panic.”

Marylou Ferrara of Hopewell Borough said she had not been planning to speak but that Branham’s comments prompted her to do so. She praised the Board for being careful in their evaluation of the issue and next steps.

“I think we all know that masks help and that everyone is tired of them,” she said. “Both of those things can be true.”

In addition to the conversation around masks, the School Board discussed the need to replace the District’s turf field and facilities issues that will require repair.

They also approved a list of long-term substitutes and spring coaches and recognized five teachers who are retiring: Barbara Bugay of Timberlane Middle School, after 32 years with the district; Candace Gore of Timberlane, after 21 years; Jacqueline Sterchele of Hopewell Elementary Shcool, after 20 years; Marci Josephson of Hopewell Elementary, after19 years; and Victoria Obst of Hopewell and Toll Gate Elementary Schools, after 15 years.

School Board member Anita Williams Galiano, who heads the recently formed Social Emotional Learning Committee, praised staff involvement in an ongoing training series about how teachers can better manage their own well being and be a model for students.

“I can’t say enough how reassuring and affirming it is to see the number of engaged and involved staff members that are participating at 3:45 at the very end of their day,” Williams Galiano said.

Another matter raised during the public comments was an upcoming affordable housing development on Scotch Road that is being built utilizing a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, program. Jon Edwards, a Township resident, and several others raised concerns about the development taking money away from the school district, although the the Township has stated that it merely collects the District’s taxes and has no say in the amount of taxes the District receives. The School Board said they would review the information Edwards and others provided.

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