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Students Protest State's School Mask Mandate

LATROBE, Pa. (KDKA) -- The first day of Pennsylvania's school mask mandate did not go over well with some parents and students.

Superintendents in several districts say the majority of students abided by the mandate and were masked. Dozens of students and parents protested outside of schools in our region.

Some protesters were outside of Hempfield High School for almost 10 hours. One mother was there from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Their argument was this is a personal decision and not one to be made by the government.

"If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you don't want to wear one, don't wear a mask. I feel like it's up to us," senior Daniel Beck said.

Outside the school, as the majority of the student body was learning, about 50 people protesting the mandate.

"Our children don't belong to the government. They belong to their parents," state Rep. Eric Nelson of the 57th district said.

It was the same scene outside Greater Latrobe High School where a fraction of the student population protested. Dozens of students were sent home.

WATCH: KDKA's Briana Smith Reports

The state's mandate went into effect Tuesday in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

Around 40 students gathered outside the school to protest for an hour, saying that wearing a mask is their choice.

"Doing this is going to be a fight for our freedom, and we are not going to be taken over," said freshman Grace Navarre.

The students say they are not allowed in the school building without wearing a mask and that the district did not accept the exemptions students provided.

"It's my senior year," said Spencer Bowman, who led the protest. "I feel like I wasted most of my high school career. I really just want to have a taste of normalcy before I leave Latrobe."

Bowman says he previously followed the health and safety protocols. But now he says students should decide if they want to wear a mask or not.

"They want to say 'my body, my choice.' Well it's my body, my choice to not wear a mask and not get vaccinated," said Navarre.

The state's acting health secretary says the mask mandate -- requiring all students, staff and teachers to wear a mask in schools, early learning programs and childcare providers -- will protect students and stop the spread of COVID-19. In just six weeks, she says infections in school-aged children rose nearly 300%.

But some students and parents argue masks do more harm than good.

"There is more talk about suicide, anxiety, depression, skipping school, all that stuff, because of these masks," said Charles Pienaar. "I will not allow my kid to be another number in that sense. More kids are dying in that sense and hurting themselves than what the mask is actually trying to stop."

Others argue the masks are saving lives.

"I work on a COVID unit in the hospital, and if people would see how much these patients are suffering -- I would much rather see my daughter wear a mask than watch her suffering, struggling to breathe in the hospital," said Cynthia Sarp, whose daughter goes to the high school.

Sarp says COVID cases continue to rise, and they're preventable.

"Please wear your masks," said Sarp. "I watch people suffer every day when I go to work and it's horrible. It's just awful to watch, and if it was one of my family members, I don't know what I would do."

After the protest, students say administrators told them to make a decision: wear the mask or go home. Most of the students chose to leave, and now they say they're being denied access to their education. The students say they'll protest again Wednesday, hoping administrators will give them a choice.

"It's about putting a muzzle on. It's about you have a freedom to have a choice if you want to wear a mask or a freedom if you want to be vaccinated," Anne Beck said while protesting outside Hempfield High School.

As for Wednesday, protesters hope districts drop the mandate.

"Our children will be present tomorrow. They want to be present. Our kids want to learn. They're tired of being taught at home," Anne Beck said.

In both Hempfield and Greater Latrobe, protests are planned for Wednesday morning.

Hempfield's Superintendent said students not in class and part of the demonstration were marked absent. She said virtual learning is still available. The district is working with anyone who has a medical exemption.

In Latrobe, the superintendent says the district has to follow the mask mandate. She says some students decided to wear a mask and stay in school. She hopes more students will do the same. Otherwise, they'll have to enroll in cyber school, eCAT or be homeschooled.

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