Aug. 20—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Unvaccinated students and employees at Westmont Hilltop School District will be required to wear a mask inside when the new school year starts next week.
The school board approved the measure at Thursday's meeting with a 5-4 vote.
David Angeletti, Kamal Gella, Jeffrey Masterson, John Messina and Rebecca Webb supported the updated health and safety plan that included the mask mandate, while William Carney, Lisa Drennen, Robert Gleason and Joseph Nibert voted to reject the proposal.
Vaccinated students and staff will have the option to wear a mask, but will have to provide proof of inoculation to Westmont.
"I think it should be the parents' choice," Nibert said after the meeting.
Carney agreed, stating that Nibert's wife's statements from the public comment portion of the gathering were "spot on."
Heather Nibert, who has two children in the high school, said she doesn't think the "children should be forced to wear masks."
She cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that showed children face a .04% chance of novel coronavirus infection and said covering children's faces leads to psychological damage, as does telling them the air around them is "toxic" and everyone that they could come into contact is sick.
Heather Nibert also addressed how difficult it is for children learning phonics to do so with masks.
"Any child who wants to wear a mask should feel free to do so," Heather Nibert said. "But forcing them to make this personal health and developmental sacrifice is abusive."
Jill Henning, an associate professor of biology at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, was in favor of the mask mandate.
The district mother has a Ph.D. in infectious disease microbiology. She answers questions about COVID-19 in a Tribune-Democrat feature.
She noted during the public comment section that the delta variant of COVID-19 is more easily spread by those infected and encouraged everyone to "trust the math."
"Someone with the original strain was likely to infect three to four other people," Henning said. "Someone with the delta variant is likely to infect five to nine ... so, yes, delta is much more infectious."
Henning said that if masks are used at all, even with the least effective versions, several dozen children can be kept from being infected.
Thomas Mitchell, Westmont superintendent, told the members that he wanted to leave the door open for the plan to change when the meeting ended.
Administrators and boards have to review their health and safety document every six months, but Mitchell said the form will more than likely be discussed on a monthly basis.
"We will continue to talk about this," he said.
To keep track of those vaccinated, the district will inventory all employee medical records in the office and the school nurse will monitor student records when school begins.
Teachers will be made aware of student mask requirements in order to monitor compliance, Mitchell said.
Students and staff will not have to wear a mask during outdoor activities, such as athletics and recess.
Westmont is in the minority of area school districts with this decision.
The majority have adopted mask- optional health and safety plans.
Board members also voted on adjustments to the Price Field project during Thursday's meeting.
They approved an increase to the changing room size that cost $190,000, from roughly 750 square feet to close to 1,000 square feet.
The board also voted to advertise for bids on the field house, as well as the final proposal of that building.
Webb said the last football game at Price Field before work begins will be Sept. 4.
All other home games will be held at Greater Johnstown School District's Trojan Stadium.
"They have been a good neighbor in the past and continue to be a good neighbor by allowing us use of their wonderful facility," Mitchell said.