• Joseph F. Berenato

Reaction to school mask mandate

Order signed on Aug. 6


Governor Phil Murphy signed Executive Order No. 251, mandating the wearing of face masks in schools. (Courtesy Photo)

HAMMONTON—On August 6, in response to the rising number of cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Governor Phil Murphy signed Executive Order No. 251, mandating the wearing of face masks in schools.


“All public, private and parochial preschool programs and elementary and secondary schools, including charter and renaissance schools (collectively ‘school districts’), must maintain a policy regarding mandatory use of face masks by staff, students and visitors in the indoor portion of the school district premises,” the order reads.


The executive order, which went into effect on August 9, allows for the following exceptions:

When doing so would inhibit the individual’s health, such as when the individual is exposed to extreme heat indoors;


When the individual has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove a face mask without assistance;


When a student’s documented medical condition or disability, as reflected in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Educational Plan pursuant to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, precludes use of a face mask;


When the individual is under 2 years of age;


When the individual is engaged in activity that cannot physically be performed while wearing a mask, such as eating or drinking, or playing a musical instrument that would be obstructed by a face mask;


When the individual is engaged in high-intensity aerobic or anaerobic activity;


When a student is participating in high-intensity physical activities during a physical education class in a well-ventilated location and able to maintain a physical distance of six feet from all other individuals; or


When wearing a face mask creates an unsafe condition in which to operate equipment or execute a task.


The executive order was met with mixed reactions from the residents of Hammonton.


“I definitely do not agree. Kids should not have to wear masks; it should be the parents’ choice if they want their kids to. I think it’s wrong to force that in school. It can’t be good for the kids emotionally, at this point, to wear them. I think, at this point, we are more educated on the virus and the variants, and it should be a choice—not mandatory,” Norma Long said.


Jacqui Foy expressed her feelings about masks in an interview with The Gazette.


“I’m in favor of doing whatever I can to get this all over with. I don’t love the idea of my kids wearing a mask for eight hours, but if that’s what needs to be done to keep them and those in compromised health safe, then that’s what we’ll do,” Foy said.


Foy said that, while she does not know for certain whether masks should or should not be worn, she does know that she has “never lived during a pandemic.”


“I’m not a scientist. I’m not a doctor. I don’t pretend to be an expert. I know that, when we look back on history, I’d rather say we did way too much, rather than we didn’t do enough. My 4-year-old prefers to wear his mask, and my 12-year-old said she’ll wear her mask happily if it means she gets to go back to school,” Foy said.


Barbara Neary-Bachalis agreed with Foy, noting that the issue has, for some, become a partisan one.


“Diseases don’t care if you’re a Republican or Democrat. Let’s take the politics out of medical treatments. It makes me crazy that it’s all about politics—if you’re a Democrat, you believe one thing, and if you’re Republican you believe another. Let’s believe our scientists and our medical personnel and the doctors we go to,” Neary-Bachalis said.


Neary-Bachalis said that she was “happy that Governor Murphy is requiring our children to wear masks.”


“I think it will keep our children safe. I believe that to err on the side of caution is the best course of action to take. We don’t have anything to lose, and we may have everything to gain to keep our children safe ... I don’t want any child lost to this terrible disease. I’m a firm believer in taking all the safety precautions we can take,” Neary-Bachalis said.


Vincenzo Penza, however, argued about the effectiveness of “everyday cloth mask coverings.”


“Essentially, we’re giving the public a false sense of security by saying, ‘wear a piece of cloth or a retail paper mask and this will create some sort of protection for wearers.’ Science dictates that the only type of protection that really works is in a truly sanitary hospital setting with multiple layers of PPE, and those multiple layers being beyond one or two masks over your face,” Penza said.


Penza said that such masks are “creating a false sense of protection for people from an airborne virus.”


“That, coupled with the data of outcomes from those infected with COVID, creates a level of risk assessment that parents, students, teachers and boards of ed. can take into consideration when formulating a plan for the school,” Penza said.


Penza said that such decisions should fall outside the purview of the state.


“Local boards of ed should be able to make decisions for their communities based on the residents, parents and taxpayers of those municipalities, number one. Number two, parents should be able to make the best decisions for their children. Number three, the entire concept of ‘wear any retail mask or cloth covering and you’re protected against contracting an airborne virus’ is a false sense of security that’s not based on real science,” Penza said.


Ellen L. (last name withheld by request), a nurse anesthetist who holds a doctorate in nursing, concurred with Penza.


“There’s not enough evidence to be threatening and forcing and coercing people, rather than presenting them with the facts for informed consent—free from coercion—since that’s one of the basics. I think people would be more willing and less freaked out if the threats and bribes stopped, and if they were given a choice after being educated. Knowledge is power, and I’m all about empowering people to make decisions about their healthcare and being active participants in their care. Not everyone has the same life and medical history,” she said.


Jennifer Rajkowski said she is in favor of the mandate.


“We are navigating a new reality with the Delta variant—it poses a more serious danger to everyone, including those vaccinated, and to children, who are largely unable to be vaccinated,” Rajkowski said.


Rajkowski’s daughter is too young to receive a vaccine; therefore, her health “is contingent on those around her.”


“In my daughter’s school community we are invested in the health of all of the children in the school, their siblings, their family members—you really become aware that one instance of illness can affect so many lives, and some of those folk may not get ‘just a mild case.’ Kids are excellent at being contagious, especially when packed indoors in large groups. With so many being unable to be vaccinated, the least invasive and most prudent remedy is indoor masking,” Rajkowski said.


Rajkowski said that her daughter has been “in school, masked, full-time since last July.”


“All children in her school over the age of 2 are masked—and have been since the school reopened. It’s just another part of their day. They play outside un-masked, eat lunch, and the younger kids nap, un-masked. We’ve not experienced any COVID outbreaks, and our overall health has been amazing—not even a cold. My daughter puts on her mask without complaint, and views it much like shoes: something she has to do to go to a store, to school, etc. It doesn’t even register as an annoyance,” Rajkowski said.


Amanda Ingemi, though, believes that masks can create other hardships.


“For the younger children learning how to read, I don’t know how teachers can express, facially, if anything, how to enunciate proper English without the children seeing their faces. How is little Johnny going to know how to say ‘mom’ without seeing his teacher show him that with her mouth? That’s how those teachers teach, and that makes it really hard for kids at that age,” Ingemi said.


Ingemi said that “it’s also still scary for them going into school.”


“It’s very sterile in the schools. There were no pictures in the hallways last year. It was very strange, and it’s not a good environment for the little kids. It’s scary,” Ingemi said.


Ingemi said that the schools have already “gone to a lot of measures with Plexiglas and social distancing.”


“I think the mask is just extra. If they’re sitting at their desks, they should be able to take them off. At this point, it’s such an overreach, if anything. It’s like the government is looking down at us, like, ‘Well, you guys aren’t smart enough to make your own choices for you—or your kids—so we’re going to continue to do so for you,’” Ingemi said.


The decision to require masks, Ingemi said, should rest not with the state but with the parents “and what they think is best for the child, like all decisions based on children’s needs.”


“It’s extremely intrusive, at this point. It’s gone on long enough. The teachers are probably, mostly vaccinated—if they wanted to be—and the ones who aren’t decided to take that chance, knowing the risks. Let’s be honest: the kids’ hospitalizations are still as low as they’ve ever been. There’s no more than there were before; even with the new variants, kids are still not at risk ... so, quite frankly, I don’t understand why we’re punishing these kids over and over. They deserve to have a normal school year after two years of hell,” Ingemi said.