Johnstown schools expect mask mandate for start of school

JASON SUBIK/THE LEADER-HERALD Greater Johnstown School District Superintendent William Crankshaw discusses the district’s COVID-19 safety plan Thursday night in the auditorium of the Knox Building.

Greater Johnstown School District Superintendent William Crankshaw on Thursday night outlined the school district’s COVID-19 safety plan for the fall — which he said he believes will include a mask mandate and social distancing rules.

Crankshaw said Johnstown will have no choice but to follow state and local guidelines. He said the high rate of COVID-19 transmission in Fulton County will likely mean mask wearing and maintaining social distance in school will be two important strategies towards limiting COVID-19 infections and the quarantining of many students at the district.

“Quarantine is the enemy of instruction,” Crankshaw said.

Crankshaw’s highlighting of the issue of student quarantines during the 2020-21 school year strikes directly at the main issue behind the formation of the Fulton County Facebook group “Quarantine The Quarantine”, several members of whom spoke out against the possibility of a mask mandate Thursday at the school board meeting.

The Associated Press on Wednesday reported that in the state of Florida, where a state ban is preventing local school districts from requiring masks, over 10,000 students and staff in the giant Hillsborough County Public Schools district have been isolated or quarantined after the first week of school due to the surging COVID-19 Delta Variant

Crankshaw said Johnstown is preparing for a school year without any “remote only” option for students, although the district is working on a plan for students who are quarantined to access school materials via the internet.

“Our basic plan is 100 percent in-person learning in each building,” Crankshaw said. “That includes all curricular, co-curricular and extracurricular activities. No remote learning will be offered, and there are many reasons for that, except in the case of a school initiated emergency protocol … if the Dept. of Health or some order is given to close school because the epidemic is reaching certain proportions, of course we will comply. Face coverings are required, with the continual assessment of the continued need for them.”

The Fulton County Dept. of Health last week issued alerts notifying the public that the county now has a “ “substantial level of community transmission” of COVID-19 with a sharp increase in the number of positive cases over the past three weeks:

• July 24-31 — 25 people tested positive out of 1,018 tests given.

• Aug. 1-7 — 38 people tested positive out of 1,267 tests given.

• Aug. 8-15 — 66 people tested positive out of 1,387 tests given.

Fulton County continues to rank dead last in percentage of residents vaccinated at 45.8%, 24,562 people, among the Mohawk Valley Region of counties, and near the bottom of counties in New York state.

The Fulton County Dept. of Public Health has issued guidance that even individuals who are vaccinated should wear masks when gathering indoors. Few individuals Thursday at the Johnstown School Board meeting wore masks, illustrating the deep divide over how best to deal with the public health policy during the coronavirus pandemic.

During his speech, Crankshaw acknowledged several times that many people in the community have strong feelings both in favor and against mask wearing as well as vaccination, but he said it is the duty of the school administration to lead and to comply with rules set forward by New York state.

“There will be application of common sense measures,” he said. “And what I mean by that — and you can drill me with questions until the cows come home about common sense — but I will tell you is that last spring, generally, I think our faculty and staff made excellent decisions in terms of taking breaks and [dealing with] the heat index. When our staff had control, I think we made excellent decisions.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, speakers were given three minutes to express their opinions on the COVID-19 safety plan.

Nicole Hammond, who identified herself as a resident of West Decker Street in Johnstown and the mother of two students at the school district, said she wants parents to have the choice as to whether their children will be required to wear masks. She read a prepared statement during her time to provide comment.

“The fundamental issue that we have here is that there is a new societal risk that it here to stay,” she said.

Hammond’s statement went on to attack masking recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatrics, alleging that a conspiracy of corrupt politicians, labor unions and corporations are pushing mask mandates and COVID-19 vaccinations for personal gain.

“The media assists the CDC in pushing the narrative that children are being hit with the Delta Variant, however they provide no numbers of how many children, whether they’re vaccinated, unvaccinated, their ages or comorbidities,” Hammond said. “The CDC provides just enough information to sow panic and fear absent any meaningful analysis.”

Reuters News Agency on Saturday reported the number of children hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States hit a record high of just over 1,900 children.

Several women speaking at the school board indicated they would not allow their children to wear masks when the school year starts.

School officials did not say how children who refuse a mask mandate will be dealt with.

Several speakers also used their time to reference talking points often discussed on Fox News, including illegal immigration on the Southern border and “Critical Race Theory” being taught in schools.

Johnstown resident Amy Ward said wearing masks in school led to her daughter having “very bad breath”, and she doesn’t want refugees from Afghanistan allowed in the United States.

“Now we’re talking about bringing in Afghanistan refugees,” she said. “We’ve been manipulated with vaccines and masks, and now these new variants. I’m not saying [the pandemic] doesn’t exist, but it’s more political than it needs to be.”

One man who said he was the father of four children at the district said he’s concerned about his children possibly being taught they are racists.

“Rather than the safety aspect, my main question is will my children be taught they are inherently racist because of the color of their skin?” he asked.

Cranskshaw, and several other district educators, said the diversity elements of Johnstown’s curriculum do not teach anyone they are inherently racist. Crankshaw encouraged the man to read more material about the subject matter of his question.

By Paul Wager