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Fort Frye gets feedback on mask mandate

Superintendent Stephanie Starcher discusses how masks are helping prevent students from being quarantined Monday at the Fort Frye Local Board of Education meeting at Fort Frye High School in Beverly. (Photo by James Dobbs)

BEVERLY — On Monday, a parent in the Fort Frye Local School District made a formal request that their child not be required to wear a mask on the basis of religion.

Parents, teachers and even principals came to the board of education meeting to express their opinions about the recent mask mandate in the district. The mandate states that masks will be worn at all times by teachers, staff, students and visitors except for when outdoors and eating.

Parent Jimmy Heldman spoke for 15 minutes about his rights and how he feels the government is infringing on those rights and his religion based on the mask mandate in the school district. Heldman had an issue with not receiving a religious exemption for his children. He explained that his religious beliefs are against facial coverings.

“No government can force or compel a person to define the parameters of their faith, and no one from the government gets the right to determine the legitimacy of that faith,” said Heldman.

Last year, during the mask mandate, Heldman and his wife filled out a two-page document outlining their faith. He said the school acknowledged their faith, but couldn’t let his children come to school without facial coverings. Virtual schooling out of Nashville was offered as a replacement instead of going to school in person.

Parent Jimmy Heldman speaks about his religious beliefs at the Fort Frye Local Board of Education meeting Monday at Fort Frye High School in Beverly. (Photo by James Dobbs)

Heldman read sections 201 and 202 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and part of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. In his opinion, his children should receive an exemption from wearing masks because of the families religious beliefs.

Heldman read an email he received from the school which explained that the district would consider certain exemptions to its new mask policy, but is under no legal obligation to do so.

A representative from Lawful America, a group advocates for people based on the Constitution and various human rights statutes, was at the meeting to serve a notice on demand to the school board, stating they are in violation of their oath to uphold, protect, and defend the rights given to the people of the United States. Lawful America has already served seven school boards and plans to serve school boards all across the United States, the attorney said.

Fort Frye Principal Andy Schob thanked board members for making difficult decisions like mandating masks. Schob said he wants the opportunity to do whatever he can to keep kids in school.

“Nobody wants to mask long term; we believe that masks right now is the right thing for our kids,” he said.

Superintendent Stephanie Starcher explained her thoughts on the mask mandate. She said that she saw a rise in absences that was triple what it would normally be. She also stated that she was watching the number of quarantine cases and positive cases start doubling.

“I talked to the administration and I let the board know that we were going to mask in order to stop the spread…,” said Starcher. “So today, for example, with the cases that we’ve had positive we can account for 117 students that did not get quarantined, that would have probably not been in masks.”

Under Ohio Department of Health guidelines, students do not have to quarantine if they were wearing masks while in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 and are not displaying symptoms.

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