Parents, students want freedom of choice as PA schools follow government masking mandate


BEDFORD COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ) — Protests were held outside schools across Central Pennsylvania as districts navigate through the commonwealth’s mandatory mask mandate. Parents who sent their children to school without masks tell WTAJ their students were turned away or segregated from others.

“We have a freedom of choice of whether we want to do it [wear masks] or not,” said Bailey Detwiler, a junior at Williamsburg High School. “We shouldn’t be getting in trouble for not wanting to put a muzzle over our faces.”

A rally was organized by Williamsburg students, who say they’ll continue their efforts until the Williamsburg School Board meeting on Thursday.

They said they understand, however, the school’s difficult position.

“We know that it’s not necessarily the school’s fault,” said Detwiler.

“We want our kids to go to school, we do not want to hurt our school district,” added Della Walters, a parent in the Williamsburg Community School District. “The school district is a big part of our community, we just don’t want our children living in fear.”

The mask mandate is state legislature and Williamsburg Superintendent Lisa Murgas said their hands are tied.

“We understand, you know, parents believe that they, it is their decision, it should be their choice for what’s best for their child and there isn’t anybody that’s going to disagree with that,” said Murgas. “It’s just at this point, we’re at a point with an order that was handed down, we’re required to enforce it.”

Williamsburg is not currently accepting opt-out forms. These forms are accepted at the Tussey Mountain School District, however, parents said many weren’t accepted.

“We were met at the door, and said that only a medical exemption form would be acceptable, not the one that we had provided,” said Daniel Zimmerman, a parent in the Tussey Mountain School District.

He said those children were not allowed in the school.

“It was pretty frustrating, it kind of left me as a parent, not sure what to do,” said Suzanne Morrow, a parent in the Tussey Mountain School District. “I truly believe that we should have choice in our decision on whether or not our child should wear a mask. I took my children home and I just took their work with me.”

Following a peaceful protest, Morrow said Tussey Mountain Superintendent Dr. Jerry Shoemake met with the concerned parents.

“Basically what it comes down to for the school district, and I think a lot of school districts, is they’re being advised by their solicitors that, they’re afraid of a lawsuit for a wrongful death,” said Zimmerman.

In a statement to WTAJ, Dr. Shoemake said, “This is an issue with very strong feelings on both sides of it. The governor issued his order, and many of our families do not agree with it. The Tussey Mountain School Board has discussed this issue at length and based upon the advice of our solicitor and other professional organizations, we have decided to uphold the Governor’s order because we believe that it offers us the very best chance of staying open in the face of increasing infection rates. We also believe that masking will limit much of the quarantining that has decimated our population recently as positive cases increase. We had parents who brought children to school today and wanted us to let their children into school without wearing a mask. We declined to allow children or staff to be unmasked and parents who refused were asked to take their children with them, which all parents were prepared to do.”

WTAJ also received reports from parents in the Clearfield, Tyrone, and West Branch school districts that their students were being segregated by those who wore masks and those who do not.

Tyrone Superintendent Leslie Estep said in a statement to WTAJ, “Tyrone Area School District is currently following and enforcing the PA Department of Health’s Mask Order.  We have an established process in place to engage with families who have indicated that their child(ren) qualify for a medical exception to the Order and we are working with those families on this process.”

West Branch Superintendent Michelle Dutrow said in a statement to WTAJ, “West Branch worked through the new mask mandate with non-compliant parents and students today in the same manner as many other school districts in the area. Overall, we applaud and sincerely thank the vast majority of our parents/families who set aside any personal differences to have their children in school for in-person instruction.”

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