Rural PA would rather anything than “mask up”

Haley Beardsley, Opinions Co-Editor

The University is falling to pieces as the “plague” wreaks havoc on everyone’s immune systems, but our campus is well-protected compared to the surrounding rural Pennsylvanian towns. Selinsgrove and Mifflinburg are both battling something worse than mucus — incredibly infuriated parents. 

Selinsgrove is located roughly 14 miles away from Lewisburg, but their school board meeting on Aug. 16 displayed a starkly different environment. The agenda was rather simple and straightforward: “choose to allow optional masking throughout the district campuses or mandate all students, faculty and visitors to wear them.” The meeting drew 25+ speakers out of the woodwork who were all passionate about the board vote, especially because the board is filled by volunteers. A few speakers took extreme stances, such as correlating the increase in district suicide rates to isolation caused by masking. Meanwhile, David Richard, a biologist and COVID-19 response coordinator at Selinsgrove’s own Susquehanna University, pled the severity of the delta strain to the intense crowd. His remarks were met with interruptions and boos. At the end of the battle, the Selinsgrove board voted to enact a mask-optional policy 7-2.

More recently, on Sept. 14, the Mifflinburg Area School Board faced a similar fate. However, the planned evening meeting proved so rambunctious that the board could not even meet in person. Mifflinburg Area School District explained that a “threat” caused the board directors to suddenly shift online minutes before the meeting was meant to begin. While there were few details provided about the threat, the superintendent elaborated that the “cumulative” threats were the concern. While the meeting may have been moved, the parents were not. Approximately 70 community members continued with an in-person meeting, holding an estimated 90-minute town hall session of their own. The meeting was essentially an airing of grievances opened with the Pledge of Allegiance—naturally. 

Many Mifflinburg attendees viewed the move online as a means of “censorship” rather than a real threat. “Censorship,” however, might be far too of an extreme for the nature of a school board meeting. In fact, Mifflinburg Area School District avoided a unproductive disaster, like Selinsgrove’s meeting, by proactively responding to the threats. Besides, the Mifflinburg board did eventually rule to make masks optional, so the rally cry of “censorship” and Facebook whining that the community is not “being heard” quickly became obsolete. However, in either scenario—both Mifflinburg and Selinsgrove—the eruption of anger and lack of decency is appalling. Is there a way to stimulate more productive conversation about COVID-19 in these impactful, important settings? Yes, and it is the exact reason parents there went to the meetings in the first place: education. 

But the uproar is not unexpected, mostly due to the high amount of misinformation in this area. Rural Pennsylvania’s median income and college education levels fall below other areas of the state, and as a result, recent conspiracy theories have run amok through community forums and Facebook groups. Several studies have correlated those factors (income and education) with increased masking practices. Also, rural areas affected by such misinformation, like much of the Midwest and South right now, have been affected by some of the worst hospital loads of the pandemic, likely due to the delta variant. The effects of misinformation across the country could be mirrored here in Pennsylvania. Therefore, providing resources for education about COVID-19 would dispel the worryingly increasing incorrect assertions like community members supposedly linking masking to rising suicides in Selinsgrove. 

The school boards should institute an informative portion to their meetings to lessen the absurdity of outbreaks. By giving someone like Prof. David Richard a proper stage to speak, members of the community have an opportunity to truly grasp the reality of the situation before aimlessly airing grievances. 

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