Hartford parents decry school mask rule

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The Cisco WebEx live stream screen from the Hartford Board of Education meeting on Feb. 15.

A half-dozen Hartford Central School District parents spoke adamantly against the statewide mask mandate in schools during the virtual Hartford Board of Education meeting on Feb. 15.

During the public comment session that opened the meeting, parents encouraged the board and school superintendent Andrew Cook to initiate a parental choice option for students to wear masks in school despite the mandate still in effect.

Cook announced on the district website and at the board meeting that there is anticipation that Gov. Kathy Hochul will lift the mandate in schools during or after February break (week of Feb. 21) despite extending the state of emergency through March 16.

“We are hopeful that the governor will repeal the mask mandate for schools,” Cook’s online statement said. “When the mask mandate is lifted, it is the intention of the Hartford School District to allow for parent choice in regards to masks. When the mandate is lifted, the district will not require masks to be worn. However, if a parent or student elects to wear a mask, they will have that option.

“At this time, New York State is still requiring the use of masks in school. However, when the mandate is lifted, locally, the district will not require their use.”

Cook added that new restrictions and guidelines from the state could and likely would be released on how schools would be affected.

“Please note, when the mandate is lifted, there may be other NYS Covid-related guidelines related in regards to social distancing, exposures, quarantines, transportation, or other items.

“If that is the case, we will make sure to provide that information as soon as possible,” Cook said.

Under his wife Danielle Butler’s WebEx account, an individual by the name of “Mr. Butler” spoke passionately about wanting to support the board but doesn’t understand potential hesitation to completely move on from the mask mandate and lead the way for surrounding school districts.

“My concern is we’re such a small, tight-knit community, and if what you’ve stated is true, why is it continuous asking for permission? I’m confused if you’re scared of pushback from the state, if you’re going to have certain funding removed or if you guys are going to be pulled out of your position of where you’re at right now why it’s so hard for you to make your own decision,” Butler said.

“We talk about the mental health of these kids. Every day we see them come home and they don’t even have color, they are just gray, fogged out and have nothing to discuss about their enjoyment of school.

“I heard the word ‘law’ come up at the beginning of this meeting. Like I said, we’re a really tight community, a lot of us grew up here. We believed in you guys to not follow the same rhetoric that we see on the West Coast, or that we see down in the city. If you guys are that fearful of pushback from the state, I tell you, I’ll stand behind you 100%. I’ll put everything on the line to make sure that you guys don’t feel like you’ll lose your position of power or your job based on what an unelected governor wishes to state.

“We all know the numbers, we see it. You can go to SkyZone and watch hundreds of kids run around with no masks and the health department is not there knocking down their door.”

Butler, along with all parents who spoke, touched on how his patience has waned over the two-year-long period of the pandemic.

“It’s going to come to a point where we need to push back and the only people we can push back on are now on you guys. And I know a lot of you, even the teachers in the school, board members, I’m sure a lot of you are sick of this. But you don’t know where to go; know I’m willing to put my house on the line, my job on the line to make sure my baby has a better future, one with you guys,” Butler said.

“If a few of you are just nervous, parents are nervous and teachers are nervous, that’s fine. But we can either stand behind your or we can stand on the other line, and I don’t want to be on the other line. I don’t want that blown up into some situation that shouldn’t be handled civilly like we are.”

Corey Duval said he works in a dorm unit at Washington County Jail observing 40 inmates next to each other every day not wearing masks, yet children have to when they go to school.

“When is enough, enough? I just wanted to say that, how are inmates getting more rights than our kids? That should not be allowed, these are people that have done wrong and we’re treating our kids worse than we are treating convicted criminals,” Duval said.

A mother of two children at the middle and high school levels named “Carolyn” said she was speaking on behalf of the older children in the district who may be subject to harassment, physical altercations and have a hard time staying motivated.

“The stress that goes on every day from my older children just to come to school is getting harder and harder to defend when their loudmouth mother is the only one that is on their side,” Carolyn said. “We can’t stand up anymore because we elected all of you to speak for us and for our children. We all understand that rules come from the state. However, if there are rules that are that adverse to kids, when do we stand up and say that’s enough?”

Angelia Abbott said she is concerned that some of her children’s teachers agree that masks are ineffective yet still require students to wear them.

“He (her fifth-grade son) tells me how he has many teachers that agree with him that masks are useless and annoying, and he just can’t get past their hypocrisy when they yell at students and enforce this rule that they themselves have said doesn’t make sense. What lesson is that teaching him?” Abbot said. “That even when you know something is morally wrong you are justified in your actions because you are following orders? That is not how I want to raise my son.”

Board president Phil Jessen did not directly respond to any of the comments made by the participating public but delivered a statement of understanding of the community’s collective, climaxing frustration.

“I know I speak for all of the board members when I say that we appreciate your comments and the opportunity to listen. We will certainly take all of your thoughts to heart,” Jessen said. “I and our other board members, Mr. Cook and our administrators thank you for your forthrightness and your efforts on behalf of all of our students.

“It’s a concern for all of the board members, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. We all either have had children in the school district or currently do, so we do take this issue to heart and it does weigh very heavily upon us. Please do be aware that we have been fighting for the children of our school district.”