Monique Parsons speaks out against masks in schools at the Aug. 31 Riverhead Board of Education Meeting. Photo: Alek Lewis

Some Riverhead Central School District residents again voiced opposition to the district’s indoor mask requirement, despite the universal masking policy adopted by the Board of Education two weeks ago and later mandated in schools statewide by the State Department of Health at the direction of Governor Kathy Hochul. 

During the BOE’s meeting Tuesday night, the public comment portion of the meeting was filled with complaints from residents who falsely claimed masks do not prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. This is contrary to the policies supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization — backed by peer-reviewed studies and the global consensus of virologists and infectious disease experts, who say wearing a mask is a key component to stopping the spread of the virus.

Masks are intended to be worn in combination with other measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus by people with pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic infection, and can also have benefits to protect the wearer, according to the CDC. 

Some residents at the meeting also claimed that the mask mandate should be abolished because children are not at risk for getting seriously ill from contracting COVID-19. Although children have been less likely to develop severe illness and die from the virus, there is early data to suggest they can develop long-term chronic symptoms, and with the prevalence of the Delta variant of the virus, the rate of hospitalizations from people age 0-17 in the United States has increased exponentially in the past month, according to CDC data.

“This is a choice for parents that needs to be made between the parent and their doctor, not an overreaching school board where we vote you in, because we will remember this, every single one of you, at the next election,” said Janet Douglass, a parent who said she pulled her child out of the district in part because of the mask mandate.

Several speakers spoke at the last BOE meeting, when the district voted 4-3 to adopt a reopening plan from Superintendent Augustine Tornatore that required universal masking indoors at the start of the school year. 

Shortly after the board voted to mandate masks, the New York State Department of Health issued a state-wide mask mandata in schools after Governor Kathy Hochul took office last week. 

With no vaccine against the virus approved by the Food and Drug Administration for those under the age of 12, children are left vulnerable to becoming sick and continuing to spread the virus. Tornatore said the mask mandates are a necessary precaution to keep 100% of students in-person this year. The district does not want to return to a hybrid or fully remote format, he said, since that could be damaging to a student’s education. 

“I have spoken to numerous parents over the summer, on the phone, through emails, regarding this situation. Nobody, and I repeat nobody, wants a mask mandate. Nobody enjoys wearing masks,” Tornatore said, adding that he invites any parents in the district to make an appointment with him to have a one-on-one conversation with him about the mandates. 

“At the end of the day, I needed to present a plan that was going to support the safety of all of the students and staff in the district,” Tornatore said.

He added that if the number of coronavirus cases on Long Island started to go down, he would have supported lifting the mandate as a part of his reopening plan. Now that masks are mandated by the state, the district’s ability to change precautions like the mask mandate and a possible vaccine mandate for school employees or students remain unknown, he said.

Monique Parsons, who was a candidate for school board this spring, told Tornatore that the district was creating a “false sense of security” with their mask mandate.

Parsons spoke at the meeting, along with her daughters, who are in 8th grade and 5th grade, who said they were exempt from masks last school year because of health concerns. Her children gave anecdotes about how they have been to multiple places without a mask and have not contracted COVID-19, and that only a few of their friends have had COVID-19 over the summer and had no symptoms. 

Although this might be Parsons’ daughter’s experience, many children’s hospitals nationally are overrun by COVID-19 patients and are requesting help from the federal government as a result, according to the Children’s Hospital Association.

Parsons said she submitted several documents that contained “100-plus studies, peer reviewed empirical studies that showcase zero efficacy in regards to the use of masks against viral transmission.”

Upon further analysis, one of the documents Parsons submitted was taken directly, and without credit or attribution, from a paper against mask mandates written by a Canadian physicist named Denis Rancourt. Rancourt, who also disputes the scientific consensus on climate change, had his paper taken down from ResearchGate, where it was originally published. Critics point out that his arguments cherry pick data from various sources to make his case against masks and often use data from older studies on the efficacy of masks to curb the spread of influenza, based on small randomized control trials. The studies themselves often recommend larger or more thorough studies to conclude the efficacy of mask wearing. Rancourt was also fired from his teaching position at a Canadian university.

David Kyle Johnson, a professor of philosophy at King’s College who teaches courses on argumentation and medical pseudoscience, published an article refuting Rancourt’s claims.

Shannon Reitz, who ran for school board in May as Parsons’ running mate, voiced her opposition to the mask mandate and asked the school board whether they would support a COVID-19 vaccine mandate if it would be proposed in the near future. Only four board members responded.

Trustees Matthew Wallace and Colin Palmer said they would be in favor of the mandates. Trustee Christopher Dorr said he would not support a mandate. Board President Laurie Downs said she was not sure what she would do, adding that her grandchildren are vaccinated. 

Greg Fischer, a frequent candidate for school board and other elected offices, spoke in opposition to masks and the COVID-19 vaccine at the meeting, as he did at the board’s previous meeting. He promoted the same book he did during the last BOE meeting, which he said advocates for a treatment of COVID-19 with vitamins. He also said the district should be expanding health education to teach students health and nutrition, which he said it is not doing. The school district already has health classes as a part of its curriculum that teach about health and nutrition.

Fischer also falsely claimed that there was no information about the vaccine’s effectiveness. Drugs that get approved by the Food and Drug Administration, even through emergency use authorization, undergo a lengthy process and require several clinical trials to show their efficacy. He also claimed the long-term effects of the vaccine are not yet known and that encouraging children to get vaccines is “terrorizing” them.

During the last meeting, Fischer said he worked with a doctors group, the Frontline COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, on treatment of the disease. The group advocates for the use of an anti-parasite drug called ivermectin to treat COVID-19, despite the drug not having FDA approval to treat the illness.

Bill Hedges, a retired Riverhead physical education teacher and sports coach, called COVID-19 a hoax at least once during several trips to the podium. He also said youth suicide rose in the months after the pandemic mask mandates were instituted, suggesting without evidence that the two were connected.

Hedges also cited a CDC study, published in May 2020, titled “Non-Pharmaceutical Measures for Pandemic Influenza in Non-Healthcare Settings—Personal Protective and Environmental Measures,” to support the argument that masks do not prevent illnesses from spreading. In the portion of the study that analyzes the use of masks in 10 randomized control trials, the scientists found that masks did not have a significant effect in reducing transmission. However, Hedges did not mention the text’s criticism of some  studies in the review as “underpowered” because of limited sample size and “suboptimal adherence” to mask wearing. It is also important to note that the subject of the study was influenza, not SARS-CoV-2 or the Delta variant of the virus.

“We did not find evidence that surgical-type face masks are effective in reducing laboratory-confirmed influenza transmission, either when worn by infected persons (source control) or by persons in the general community to reduce their susceptibility,” the study reads. “However, as with hand hygiene, face masks might be able to reduce the transmission of other infections and therefore have value in an influenza pandemic when healthcare resources are stretched.”

Hedges and Parsons also gave the board a paper against masks by Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, an osteopathic physician and American anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist who supports the disproved hypothesis that vaccines cause autism. 

Several speakers at the meeting also said that masks cause people to breathe in their own carbon dioxide, which they claimed can cause adverse health effects. Masks, however, are not capable of blocking gases like oxygen and carbon dioxide, only aerosols and respiratory droplets. Although smaller symptoms like headaches and skin irritation have been recorded with extended mask use, research supports that mask wearing has no significant adverse health effects for wearers, according to the CDC.

There is some discredited research, like a research letter published in JAMA Pediatrics, that measured carbon dioxide levels in school- age children with masks and “suggest that children should not be forced to wear face masks.” However, the study was later retracted by editors of the journal after “fundamental concerns” about the study’s methodology, conclusions and potential public health concerns.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.