A local Pennsylvania school board member resigned in disgust over death threats he claims to have received in the course of a fierce battle over whether his public school district should require masks in elementary schools.
“COVID has broken you people, and it’s disgusting,” Central Bucks County School Board Vice President John Gamble said at a public meeting Tuesday night, according to the Bucks County Courier Times. “Common decency—you all need to find it real fast.”
Gamble last week voted against a plan that would have mandated masks in schools right away, saying, “I don’t want to vote on anything anymore other than the perfect plan, instead of just something to throw out there until the next meeting. We’re rolling the dice in two days, I get it. But at this point, I don’t want to vote for a plan unless it’s the perfect plan.”
On Tuesday, Gamble voted in favor of masks following the state’s own masking order, which was finalized shortly before the Central Bucks board was scheduled to meet.
Gamble, who did not respond to a request for comment, said he had taken heat from both sides, each of which considers him “Public Enemy No. 1.” He has not specified who sent the alleged death threats, or provided any details about their contents.
The district’s new policy will go into effect on Sept. 7, and includes a provision to adjust masking requirements depending on positivity rates. And while Bucks County was initially planning to require all medical exemptions to be signed by a doctor, the board voted to drop that rule because it’s not part of the state’s mandate.
Masking in schools has led to clashes between parents and educators across the country, and violence is not uncommon. In California, an anti-mask parent allegedly assaulted his daughter’s teacher earlier this month when he saw the child leaving school wearing a face covering. Last week, a 50-year-old Florida man against mask mandates was charged with aggravated child abuse after pushing and grabbing a female high school student in a dispute over masking. Teachers trying to abide by public health guidelines have had their masks ripped off by infuriated parents, and been subjected to verbal abuse. In Illinois, one parent was so obstinate in her refusal to properly wear her mask, she was arrested and banned from school grounds.
Tensions boiled over Tuesday during the four-hour session at Central Bucks High School West, coming to a head during the public comment period. At one point, the room nearly had to be cleared when attendees tried to shout down Dr. Scott Levy, chief medical officer at Doylestown Health, an area hospital. Levy had requested that the board follow mask mandates, since COVID rates in the area have recently spiked and ICUs are filling up.
A couple of months ago, before the Delta variant began to surge, Levy said he wasn’t personally wearing a mask in public spaces like restaurants and bars because the vaccine provided adequate protection against the COVID strains then circulating. Doylestown Health at that time also eliminated its mask mandate because the data showed it was safe to do so.
But what was true then “is now completely upside down,” Levy told The Daily Beast.
“Doylestown Health is now publishing weekly our data as far as the number of cases in the hospital and the positivity rate, because people in the community believe they’re not seeing the virus here, and that it’s not serious,” said Levy.
Levy finds it “remarkable that something science-based, whether it’s masking or the vaccine, has become so politicized.” He blamed part of that on the lack of consistent data being disseminated locally and nationally since the start of the pandemic.
“If you’re not truly aware of the risk, then masking is only downside—they don’t see the benefit,” said Levy.
Earlier this month, Bucks County Board of Commissioners Chair Diane Marseglia was targeted during a public hearing by an anti-masker who insisted that delaying a return to normal was killing kids.
“You have proven you don’t care about the mental health of our kids,” the woman seethed at Marseglia, a licensed clinical social worker by training. “How many kids have struggled with depression and suicide this year because you are doing everything in your power to take away the normal school year our children need?”
Marseglia’s daughter Rebecca died of suicide in 2005, at the age of 16. And although suicide rates peaked in 2018, they declined in 2020 for the second year in a row.
“I’ve been in this position for 13 years,” Marseglia told The Daily Beast. “I have never felt so dispirited.”
Central Bucks and Council Rock represent Pennsylvania’s two wealthiest school districts, Marseglia explained. They are also the only districts having such an intense battle with parents over masks, she said, noting, “Somebody sent me something today saying that the vaccine is preparation for the antichrist to come… We have a lot of misinformed people and they have found each other, and together they think, ‘Maybe we’re right.’”
The anti-mask hysteria has been percolating in the Central Bucks and Council Rock areas for some time. At a Central Bucks School Board executive session in May, members of the public and at least two board candidates lashed out at masks, along with airing various other grievances popular among the political right.
One school board candidate—who was endorsed by a militia group reportedly connected to the Three Percenters, a loosely affiliated network of anti-government extremists across the nation—spoke out against, variously, masks, “parents holding the primary responsibility for their children’s education and health, and board members pushing their own political agendas,” according to minutes from the meeting released by the board.
Another board candidate railed against, among other things, “political agendas, overspending tax dollars, treatment of children, [and] collusion with union and private physicians to instill fear,” the minutes state.
A father from the area “addressed the Board regarding America being the greatest country in the history of the world, illegal aliens that tried to come into this country, freedom and equality for everyone, and remarked that Critical Race Theory subscribes to Marxist theories,” the minutes explain.
At a Council Rock meeting on Aug. 26, one father claimed his son developed serious health complications due to mask requirements that restricted the boy’s oxygen intake.
This is not at all supported by the science, said Dr. Irwin Redlener, co-founder of the Children’s Health Fund and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, who noted that surgeons, carpenters, and construction workers all wear masks for hours on end without any problems with oxygen flow.
“I’ve lost track of the absurdities being promoted about what this pandemic is about, and what are the best strategies to try to get it under control,” Redlener told The Daily Beast. “It’s nonstop.”
Lawyer Ian Musselman is suing the school board on behalf of Council Rock parents with children who attend the local schools. Musselman said Council Rock has not been following CDC masking guidelines, and that he already got a notice from his own 9-year-old son’s school saying the boy had been exposed to COVID since classes started on Monday.
When the state’s mask mandate goes into effect next week, Musselman doesn’t think much will change.
“There’s no enforcement [mechanism], and there is wide discretion on waivers,” Musselman, who said he is not taking any money for his work on the case, told The Daily Beast. “I think you’re going to see a large portion of it not enforced.”
Musselman has seen mostly fear and anxiety among parents who are in favor of mask requirements, but largely anger and rage among those against them.
“It’s like when my 9-year-old says he doesn’t want to go to bed,” said Musselman. “Does he have a reason? No, not that he can articulate. But it’s the only control he has, and he’s not going to let anyone tell him what to do. And it’s kind of the same thing.”