Gloucester Township police officers were dispatched to C.W. Lewis Middle School on the evening of Aug. 23 in response to a call about violations of a mask mandate at the township board of education meeting.
As of the day following the session, it was not yet clear who contacted the police. School Superintendent John Bilodeau said he was unaware who made the call.
The district posted two signs that read, “Masks required before entering,” and provided free face coverings at the meeting’s registration desk. While the majority of participants followed the protocol, there were others who refused to put on a mask even when they were told the 7 p.m. meeting would not start until they complied.
Township Police Chief David Harkins and other officers arrived around the same time, and told the large gathering that anyone who refused to wear a mask was trespassing.
“You are on public property,” Harkins warned. “This is a school, and they have determined that you have to be wearing your mask here. This is an executive order.”
Harkins then suggested that the board consider canceling the meeting if residents failed to comply. His words were met with resistance from the unmasked residents, who claimed they had a right to be at the meeting and that they weren’t doing anything wrong by sitting there.
Board President Mary Jo Dintino then canceled the session and said it would be rescheduled at a date to be determined. But the situation escalated: One parent loudly voiced her fear that her kids would also refuse to abide by the mask mandate when school reopens. Others began arguing with each other. Harkins then asked again that everyone leave the building, and the large crowd was ushered out.
The mask mandate came not from the district or township, but from Gov. Phil Murphy. On Aug. 9, he issued an executive order that states, “All public, private, and parochial preschool programs and elementary and secondary schools … must maintain a policy regarding mandatory use of face masks by staff, students and visitors in the indoor portion of the school district premises.”
COVID has put parents and students in many difficult situations over the past year, with parent Crystal Lerro-Winters included. Despite losing a family member to the virus, she believes that her kids, a fifth and second grader, should be allowed to attend school without wearing a mask, and came to the meeting to argue for a mask-optional policy
“It is more harmful than it is good for my personal kids’ health, so I don’t want them to wear one,” she said. Lerro-Winters cited visible rashes, nosebleeds, breathing trouble and distraction from glasses fogging as complications of her children wearing masks in school. And though the masks are now mandated, she intends to send her kids to school without them, along with a letter signed by herself and her husband stating the coverings inhibit their children’s health.
“My thing is that it’s our right to make the choice for our kids,” Lerro-Winters added.
Many other unmasked parents and residents echoed her argument, claiming they would consider taking their kids out of school if they aren’t able to attend school without masks.
Asked whether she would consider virtual learning or vaccination if they were available as an alternative to the masks, Lerro-Winters rejected both, citing the negative mental and emotional effects of virtual learning, including the difficulty of having kids home when she and her husband work full-time jobs. As for the vaccine, she said there isn’t enough research or enough facts available for her to feel secure about it.
Meanwhile, Murphy announced on Aug. 23 that all preschool and K-12 school personnel must be vaccinated by Oct. 18 or be tested once or twice a week.
On both sides of the aisle at the meeting, attendees were afraid: of losing freedom of choice, of the hardship their children might face when wearing a mask for prolonged periods, of their kids possibly getting the virus after not adequately protecting themselves.
Some parents argued that there is a small chance their kids could contract COVID, but according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children represented 22.4 percent of reported COVID cases for the week ending Aug. 19.
While people are concerned about what this school year could hold for their children, there are several states already facing the reality of reopening schools without mask mandates, including Florida, Mississippi and Texas. Those states had a record number of students in quarantine after becoming infected with the virus, and have received backlash over their ban on mask-mandates. According to Florida Today, the Brevard Public School District had its first day of school on Aug. 10. Less than two weeks later, the district had to quarantine 3,000 students and staff, after 1,077 of them tested positive for COVIID.
Children are not immune from the virus, and since those under 12 are ineligible for a vaccine at this point, parents are also concerned with how to keep kids safe. (To learn more about COVID prevention, visit https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html.)
Although some parents argue that COVID is like the flu and isn’t deadly, Murphy announced on Aug. 9 that 13 kids in New Jersey were hospitalized with COVID, and two were in intensive care.
While there was no meeting held or resolution of the school board meeting protest, the governor’s mask mandate stands.
To keep up to date with Gloucester Township Public Schools, visit https://www.gloucestertownshipschools.org/