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Some Southwestern Pennsylvania School Districts Divided On Statewide Mask Mandate Enforcement

Francisco Seco

Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that the state Department of Health would require all teachers, students, staff, and visitors to wear masks in Pennsylvania schools and child care facilities. But in Southwestern Pennsylvania, some of the largest districts vary on how they plan to enforce the mandate and several local school district officials said the requirement itself came as a surprise.

State officials cited rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in children, concerns from parents, and the fact that fewer than half of school districts in the state implemented their own mask policies as reasons for the order. Children under 12 are still not eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The Department of Health says the statewide order will remain in effect until they determine that the public health risk is “sufficiently reduced.”

The mandate will take effect on Sept. 7— a full week after many students already returned to their classrooms.

Some school district officials in the region said state officials should have weighed in before schools put their own policies in place and students began the school year.

“What changed that was different from a week or two weeks or three weeks ago?” asked Dr. Randal Lutz, the superintendent of the Baldwin-Whitehall School District.

Baldwin-Whitehall transitioned from a “mask-optional, but encouraged” policy to a mask mandate just weeks before Gov. Wolf’s announcement.

Wolf, a Democrat, previously said local school boards should choose whether or not to make masks mandatory ahead of the school year. He also asked Republican leaders in the state House and Senate to mandate masks, but they refused.

Lutz said he was disappointed that the statewide mandate came so late. He said deferred action from state officials forced district and school board officials to make tough decisions about health and safety.

“I’m not a medical expert,” Lutz said. “My peers that are here in the Western Pennsylvania region are not medical experts. And so we have been looking for that guidance [from state health officials],” he said.

“Communities have been tearing themselves apart on this topic. Community members that would stand united at football games and other types of community events have been at each other’s throat,” he said.

Baldwin-Whitehall school board president Dr. Anthony DiCesaro said despite a “relatively vocal group of anti-maskers,” a majority of people in the district understand that wearing masks will help ensure that kids can continue learning in their classrooms.

“It is nice to have the luxury to only worry about one child or two children that you may have in your home and what you feel is best for them,” said DiCesaro, but he noted that district leadership has to worry about more than 4,400 students.

Baldwin-Whitehall officials say the mandate will be enforced like any other school district rule.

“We have rules for getting on and off the bus, we have rules for your code of conduct, we have rules for what you should wear,” said DiCesaro. “This is not a guideline, this is a rule, and it’s something we’re going to stick to.”

Prior to the state mandate, the Hempfield Area School District in Westmoreland County had a mask-optional policy. Hempfield officials say students will now be expected to wear masks in school but did not have details on how the mandate would be enforced.

School board president Anthony Bompiani said he felt “total disgust” when the mandate was first announced. He said the delay in implementing it has been difficult for students and families.

“It caused nothing but confusion in our district and acrimony. Parents are upset — and I’m not saying on one side, on both sides. So, I’m disgusted. The leadership could have been so much better. It’s a terrible situation,” he said. “What would I prefer them [to] do would be [to] weigh in earlier. Don’t change the target.”

Bompiani estimated that roughly 70% of people in the district do not want students to wear masks to school, while 30% do want students to wear masks.

Officials from other large school districts like Norwin, Cannon-McMillan and Bethel Park declined to say whether they plan to enforce the mandate.

Officials from North Allegheny, the second largest school district in Allegheny County, said in a statement on Tuesday that the district will be following the mandate.

According to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald the following school districts mandated masks for staff and students before the state issued their policy: Allegheny Valley, Avonworth, Arlington, Clairton, East Allegheny, Fox Chapel, Gateway, Hampton, Keystone Oaks, Montour, Moon Area, Mount Lebanon, North Allegheny, North Hills, Northgate, Pine Richland, Pittsburgh, Riverview, Shaler, South Fayette, West Mifflin, Wilkinsburg, Woodland Hills and schools part of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese. Upper St. Clair School District also required masks prior to the state mandate.

Updated: September 7, 2021 at 1:50 PM EDT
Updated to include a response from the North Allegheny School District.
Julia Zenkevich is a general assignment reporter for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jzenkevich@wesa.fm.