Opposition to School Masks Heard by Health Board

By JESSE WINTER
For The Leader/Times

WESTFIELD — Public-health concerns dominated Monday’s board of health meeting, with more than 30 residents filling the municipal court chambers. Public comments covered safety concerns such as the turf fielding at the proposed Edison fields complex and parental frustration over a potential mask mandate for Westfield’s students as the new school year approaches.

With a mask mandate back in effect for those entering town hall, residents focused on a potential mask mandate as public schools look to reopen a little more than a month from the date of the board of health meeting. Board of Health Secretary Megan Avallone pointed out that the state has yet to render a decision regarding whether masks for students will be required. Moreover, Ms. Avallone, who also acts as Westfield Regional Health director, emphasized that the board of health has no decision-making power, but rather acts in an advisory capacity to assist the Westfield Board of Education in its policy-making decisions.

With the exception of one resident, the parents who spoke during the August 2 meeting made the argument that they should have the ultimate decision-making power when it comes to determining whether their child wears a mask to school.

Remarks made by Jennifer Andretta of Warren Street revolved around the concern she has for her children when it comes to prolonged mask-wearing in school. She shared an incident where her child’s heart rate increased significantly, an event attributed to long-term mask use, according to Ms. Andretta. Not long after that incident, which occurred at a theme park, Ms. Andretta brought her son to a pediatrician, where the doctor observed the elevated heart rate, according to her comments.

“My job is to protect my children, and to determine what’s best for their well-being,” said Ms. Andretta. She said she has been unable to find research or studies that indicate long-term mask use is safe.

“You are all doctors; that’s your job. I’m trusting you. Please, I beg you, show me the research,” said Ms. Andretta.

Ms. Andretta said she “knows there’s a risk” with Covid-19. “I’m not minimizing that,” she noted. “But I also know there’s a risk for the masks as well. I’m asking for the right to choose.”

Another resident, Risa Kaban of Manchester Drive, also spoke during the meeting’s proceedings and expressed concern over “the schools’ plan for the fall,” — specifically, in terms of reopening with a potential mask mandate.

During her comments, Ms. Kaban pointed to studies indicating that kids 17 and younger are at significantly less risk for Covid-19 than adults. She also mentioned that there is “no research explaining long-term mask use is safe for children.”

Citing further research, Ms. Kaban warned of the adverse effects of long-term mask use such as oxygen deprivation and oxygen deficiencies – in addition to side effects such as headaches, drowsiness, slow reaction time and difficulty concentrating.

She also echoed concerns of other parents who spoke during the proceedings regarding the inability for children’s faces to be a part of the classroom and the importance of expressing emotions and non-verbal communication in a learning environment.

Johnathan Schaffer of Colonial Avenue provided the lone dissenting voice in the discussion.

“Wearing masks isn’t a huge imposition on kids,” remarked Mr. Schaffer. “Everyone can talk about their own facts,” he said. “I encourage the board to follow the science, and look out for our children.”

Monday’s meeting also saw a strong turnout of residents from streets and neighborhoods surrounding Edison field, who urged the board to consider the health impacts of the proposed Edison fields project.

The proposed project would overhaul the Edison School Field and create multi-purpose fields over the existing two baseball diamonds. The project would include LED lighting and turf fielding.

The proposed expansion of the facility to a multi-use field complex would add sport fields that would accommodate lacrosse, field hockey and soccer. The size of the lit turf fields would be approximately 400,000 square feet, with the cost estimated to be around $18.2 million.

While issues such as traffic impact and pedestrian safety, along with environmental concerns such as runoff into local water sources, were mentioned, the majority of the comments directed at the board revolved around the safety and health impact of turf fielding.

Allison Emery of Rahway Avenue spoke out against the proposal. She moved from Brooklyn with her family more than 10 years ago and said she was drawn to Westfield as a “green town.”
She called having a sports stadium in her residential community “the complete antithesis” of a green town’s “ideals.”

She questioned the safety of turf fields, in addition to the environmental consequences of runoff into local water sources. Ms. Emery also raised concerns regarding synthetic turf heating up more than regular grass fields and how that might impact the health of athletes and potentially limit recess for Edison’s students during hot days.

Another resident and mother, Erin Skurdal, also spoke out against the fields project. With her children set to become Edison students in the future, she argued that a turf field “is not a good fit for the middle school.” Citing research that advises showering after playing on a turf field, Ms. Skurdal pointed to the fact that middle schoolers “aren’t able to shower after using the fields,” when attending gym classes.

Residents such as Norman Yang of Normandy Drive and Gregg Lehmberg of Grove Street echoed their neighbor’s opposition to turf fields, citing research examining adverse health effects of synthetic turf fields.

The next board of health meeting will be held on Monday, September 6.

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