The Bethlehem Area School District (BASD) adopted a mask-optional policy, approved by the school board in a meeting on Feb. 28. This policy was outlined in their updated Health and Safety plan.
According to BASD Superintendent Joseph Roy, they are confident in this choice.
“This (decision) is with the support of St. Luke’s University, the health center, the Health Network and their epidemiologists and infectious disease doctors, and the city of Bethlehem Health Bureau,” Roy said. “Everybody’s on board with it, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it.”
The BASD is one of the last school districts in the Lehigh Valley to make this change, Roy said.
Bethlehem school board member Dean Donaher agrees with the choice, and said he is “happy we (are) moving in this direction.”
COVID-19 cases in the district and county have been low, which was one of the factors involved in approving this plan, Roy said.
According to the BASD Healthroom Data, out of the 13,000 students in the district attending 22 schools, only 50 students on average are being sent home per day with COVID-19 symptoms.
According to data from the BASD, 54 percent of high school students are vaccinated for COVID-19, 46 percent of middle school students have their vaccine and 17 percent of elementary school students also have it.
Faculty and staff vaccinations are higher with 83 percent of them vaccinated, according to BASD data.
Additionally, their data has found there to be less serious illness in the younger population.
Roy believes the situation has reached a point where individuals can choose to protect themselves by wearing a mask, but everyone does not need to wear one.
“Now it’s about ‘I’m wearing a mask, if I want to wear one to protect me, (it) has nothing to do with you,’” Donaher said. “That’s why we’re hopeful that students, faculty and adults will not be concerned about someone who’s not wearing a mask or concerned with someone who is.”
Roy also said the number of students continuing to wear masks may vary, as some students may be more comfortable than others.
In Roy’s opinion, it is all up to the students on how they want to protect themselves.
As for those who reside in Bethlehem, Donaher said there is a communal feeling of relief regarding the mask optional policy.
At the school board meeting, members of the community were given the opportunity to share their opinions and experiences with masks throughout the pandemic.
“I had a teacher that, in the middle of the winter, would keep the window open as if she was scared to be around me,” said Camryn Copf, a junior at Liberty High School, who has a medical exemption from mask-wearing.
Copf continued to describe that she was yelled at across a hallway for not wearing a mask.
Another student, a sophomore at Freedom High School, Kylie Axelband, described a time when she saw a student being physically dragged by a teacher to put on a mask.
“One of my close friends on the first day of school was not wearing a mask and this teacher was yelling through the halls to put on his mask,” she said. “(The student) clearly did not hear him and was just walking, so the teacher came up and grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to the side and yelled at him to put on his mask.”
As of now, Roy said he is not worried about possible outbreaks with low local transmission and positivity rates, but cases will be continuously monitored.
“We felt … it was the right thing to do,” Donaher said. “In fact, we’ve been kind of itching to do it, and we were happy tonight.”