Let it spread

Irene White spends her three minutes addressing the Titusville School Board talking about the effects of masks on children. White’s son, Ezekiel, took his own life last year. She wants the district to be aware of the mental health concerns the COVID-19 pandemic has had on students.

A packed Titusville High School cafeteria was the setting for the newest mask debate, as dozens of parents and community members took to the Titusville Area School District School Board meeting to voice concerns.

With multiple members of Titusville’s Police Department present, most of the audience was unmasked.

The district is adhering to a state mandate requiring masks in school buildings, but many claimed a medical exemption.

The board also heard from district principals about the beginning of school.

Nine speakers came to the podium to give public comment at the beginning of the meeting. Eight spoke out against the mask mandate, while one former district employee spoke in support of it.

Many of the speakers talked about the physiological effect that masks have on their children, and how they don’t want the district mandating what happens to their children.

The first to speak was Rachel Oberlander. Oberlander said that currently her youngest child is at home quarantined because of COVID-19.

She said that currently the rhetoric is that “if you wear a mask, you’re safe.” She said her child was wearing a mask when he came into contact with whoever was positive for COVID.

Oberlander said that every parent “has a choice” and that “this is my child.” She said that kids understand that actions have consequences, and that hers are comfortable with the consequences of not wearing masks.

Following her was Cindy Schick. Schick said that masks should be considered medical devices. For medical devices, it should be up to the parents to decide.

“You didn’t ask permission for this medical device,” she said. She said that masks can cause fear, and that prolonged fear can lead to trauma.

Schick was followed by two speakers, both who brought up attorney Eric Winter. Winter is an attorney who has fought against pandemic restrictions across Pennsylvania.

One of the speakers who mentioned him was Nicole LaBelle. LaBelle said that she was “sick of hearing that this is out of my hands” from officials and provided the district with a list of 31 districts who have sued against the mask mandate.

Next to speak was Irene White. White is the mother of Ezekiel White. Ezekiel is a former student of the district who last year took his own life.

Irene said that of all the discussions about the pandemic, the “depression and suppression” of the children is a topic that is not getting enough attention. She said that her son last year had to live with his life “hidden behind a mask.”

She said that masks and restrictions are “breaking these children” and that she is afraid of others mental health during this pandemic. Irene spoke about how every Pennsylvanian has a right to clean air, and that masks obstruct that right.

Following White was Karen Killinger-Humes. Killinger-Humes said that she wants kids healthy, but that masks are “negligible” when it comes to COVID protection.

She stressed the importance of washing hands and having kids who are sick stay home.

Debbie Barker went to the podium next. She was wearing a mask, before taking it off to speak. She said that it represents her right to choose to wear a mask.

She mentioned that she was not the first speaker, yet the microphone stand had not been cleaned in between speakers. Much like Killinger-Humes, Barker said that just a mask mandate itself isn’t helpful.

“If you are going to follow something, follow it more stringent” she said. She said that kids will touch their masks, wear dirty masks, and their use of masks is not really helping. She emphasized that masks are only one part of the equation.

Next to speak was Barb Frye, the only speaker to support mask wearing in the district. She said that while her opinions may not be popular, she is afraid of what she has seen so far.

“Our numbers are not good,” she said. She said that on the way to the board meeting, she stopped at stop signs, red lights and wore a seatbelt “for my own safety.”

While the school board did not respond to the speakers concerns during the meeting, The Herald spoke with Superintendent Stephanie Keeblert.

“The Titusville Area School District is charged with educating all students and keeping all students safe,” said Keebler. She said that was the reason for enforcing the mandate, as the district’s goal is the same as it has ever been, “to keep our kids in class in person.”

Keebler mentioned that if the school board were to go against the mask mandate, which comes from the state, the school district would be “opening up itself to a liability concern.”

As of publication, the COVID level of transmission according to the CDC was considered high.

According to the Facebook page Crawford County PA COVID-19 Information, and data from Mary Kay Radnich, the county added 30 positive COVID on Monday.

Crawford County is also below the state average of vaccinations. The county has 40.6% of the population fully vaccinated, while the state average is 55.7%

In other business, the Titusville Area School District principals gave an update about the beginning of the year.

All the principals thanked faculty, staff, parents and students for working with them as the new year starts again in the shadow of COVID-19.

First to speak was Jessica Millard of Main Street Elementary. She said that the evening with first graders before school to orient them went well, and that attendance was  high. She said that the first two weeks were a success.

Next to speak was Pleasantville Elementary’s Shawn Fink. Fink said that for their first graders orientation they had all but three attend. He echoed Millard’s statements that it can be hard to pull kids off the parents, and pull parents off the kids. He echoed sentiments about teachers and staff.

Fink was followed by the Middle School’s Miles O’Shea. O’Shea mentioned that he was impressed with the middle school community.

He said that the community has been “reliant and positive” and that so far they have had a very positive experience. He said he was excited to take the kids on the Wilderness Quest, and that they will be doing everything possible to keep the students and faculty safe.

Stephanie Beck then gave an update for the Early Childhood Learning Center (ECLC).

The ECLC is still undergoing some of the construction that took place over the summer. She described the beginning of the year as “interesting.” Teachers were only allowed into the building on Aug. 26, instead of the usual date of Aug. 1. She said that the teachers were getting ready, and that you wouldn’t have known that there was a time crunch for them at all. She thanked the district for the “beautiful building.”

Stacy Houck then spoke about Hydetown Elementary. For her first grade orientation, she said all but one student showed up, who was home sick. She said that the kids have been resilient, and so have been the staff. “We are going to take this one day at a time,” said Houck.

Last to speak was the High School’s Phil Knapp. Knapp talked about the freshman academy, saying that it was a success.

He wanted to thank all the parents for their patience, and said he understands that it is a tough time. “We will move forward from this,” said Knapp. He knows that the current situation may not be “what we want it to be” but that he is very happy to see the kids in school.

The next Titusville Area School Board meeting will be held at the High School cafeteria on Monday, Sept. 20 at 7 p.m.

Dvorkin can be reached by email at Gdvorkin@titusvilleherald.com.

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