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As state Supreme Court hears mask mandate case, contentious school board debates linger

Keith Srakocic

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court tomorrow will weigh the legality of the statewide school mask mandate that has been in place for three months. Regardless of the outcome, Gov. Tom Wolf said that the mandate is set to lift on Jan. 17. And school boards across the state may face another round of combative discussions.

North Allegheny School District, for example, has notified families that its board will vote tomorrow on a motion to “strongly encourage” mask wearing — without mandating it — in the county’s second largest school district.

If that motion is approved, the board will also consider requiring mask wearing if a surge in cases requires the district to shift to virtual learning. The motion doesn’t say how long masks would then be required.

The measures come after board members already spent the summer months debating masking policies, often contending with hours of public comment.

The struggles within North Allegheny exemplify what many of the 500 commonwealth districts have been through in the past year-and-a-half, as a nationwide political polarization has reached the most local level.

As University of Pittsburgh history professor Lara Putnam, who studies contemporary politics, puts it, “School boards became sort of ground zero for people arguing very sincerely and utterly contradictory beliefs.”

The policies took center stage in many local school board races this fall, though the outcomes were a mixed bag. And ultimately, the results revealed more about how deeply divided communities are.

In North Allegheny, Republicans and Democrats split the four seats on November's ballot.

“You might think, oh this is a beautifully balanced bipartisan community. I think on the ground it doesn’t feel that way,” Putnam said. “It’s really much more a matter of very different, very firmly held contradictory visions of what’s happening in our schools and what’s happening nationwide.”

Summer squabbles

North Allegheny is known for its academic rigor, and often tops lists for public school education. It’s a destination for families looking for quality public education while still being near the city.

It serves about 8,500 students from four North Hills suburbs, with officials expecting growth in the years ahead. The district projects that it could add almost 300 students districtwide in the coming years as new residential developments are completed.

During one of those tense North Allegheny board meetings on Aug. 18, the board voted after 1 a.m. to reverse the district’s mask mandate and make them optional. The room erupted in applause, although Wolf's statewide mandate reversed the decision not long after. But the issue was far from resolved: The next North Allegheny board meeting was called off when some in the crowd refused to wear masks.

Candidates who ran for the four open seats in November said that masking came up a lot during campaigning and door knocking.

Jon Parker ran on the Democratic slate and lost by a small margin. He said he often heard concerns that board meetings became a spectacle in August and September.

“We certainly had a number of conversations about the safety issues itself, about the decision to mask or not mask. But the overarching theme of all those was that our meetings had become embarrassing,” he said.

Vidya Szymkowiak, one of the two winners on the Republican slate, said that the message from many voters was that "kids needed consistency and predictability. And we're not just talking about physically sitting there in classrooms. There's also the extracurriculars that really gives students the reason that they want to attend school. ... One hundred percent that was the overriding issue.”

She said that he masking could be less of an issue in the coming year, as students will have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated.

“You don't continue doing something where you don't have obvious proven benefit and a potential for even a small amount of harm,” she said.

Students watched the debate play out, even as the issues some of them wanted to discuss drew less attention.

Sam Podnar, 17, says that over the course of several meetings, she saw parents act irrationally.

“That just gets in the way of having an actual productive conversation,” she said. “Seeing that, it was really disheartening. "

Podnar is a member of NA for Change, a nonpartisan group of students, alumni and community members that formed after the summer of 2020 after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a white police officer in Minnesota. They've held rallies and wrote a 20-page addendum outlining changes to make the district more equitable and inclusive.

While North Allegheny has historically been mostly white and Republican, it’s become more diverse over the last decade. Now about a quarter of students are non-white. And Podnar attends most board meetings to read student testimony about harassment and racist incidents.

But she said that masking and COVID mitigations, rather than what was being taught at schools, was at the center of the debate.

"And it’s not the kind of discourse that we’re trying to promote with NA for Change," she said. "Unfortunately, over the past few months we’ve seen a lot of these conversations just break down and not be productive at all.”

And with COVID cases surging as winter sets in, a new board seems about to take up these arguments again.

Next phase of debate

The North Allegheny School Board will vote on a masking policy Wednesday night, just hours after the Supreme Court will hear oral argument on the statewide mandate. The policy is vague, but says that masks will be “strongly recommended.”

Two board members responded when asked how they would vote on the matter, but didn't say what their vote would be. Board president Richard McClure forwarded the district announcement that the board would soon vote on the motion to make masks optional.

Newly sworn-in member Szymkowiak said that she is working with, “expert sources to fully understand the health/public policy as well as the regulatory and legal considerations surrounding this decision.”

The board meets Wednesday at 7 p.m. The meetings are now only virtual.

Both Parker and Symkowiak, who ran on different slates, said that while the meetings have been contentious, it was clear that voters deeply cared about public education.

“No matter what the national dialogue is about school board races and contentious meetings and things like that," Parker said, "my experience largely was one of growth and connection and really just hope for the future of our school district.”