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North Allegheny School Board approves mask-optional policy once state mandate lifts

In this Oct. 7, 2021, file photo, Sarah Staffiere adjusts a face covering on her daughter, Natalie, before school.
Robert F. Bukaty
In this Oct. 7, 2021, file photo, Sarah Staffiere adjusts a face covering on her daughter, Natalie, before school.

After three hours of public testimony, the North Allegheny School Board moved to “strongly recommend” mask-wearing in schools once the statewide mandate lifts.

The measure was approved in a 5-4 vote with Richard McClure, Vidya Szymkowiak, Libby Blackburn, Marcie Crow and Shannon Yeakel voting for the move and Paige Hardy, Kevin Mahler, Leslie Britton Dozier and Elizabeth Warner voting against.

Earlier in the day, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the mask mandate that Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam signed on Aug. 31. Shortly after, state Senate Pro Tempore Jake Corman filed a lawsuit with other lawmakers and parents challenging the legality of the mandate. Regardless of the outcome, the mandate is set to lift on Jan. 17 when districts will have to implement their own policies.

North Allegheny serves about 8,500 students from four North Hills suburbs and is the second-largest district in Allegheny County. Both the board and the community have been divided on masking requirements, though most speakers Wednesday night agreed that they wanted children learning in person.

Some speakers requested that the board maintain the decision that it made in September that would require masks when the community spread in Allegheny County is high or substantial, and optional if the spread is in the low or moderate level. But since that decision, the board added three new sworn members.

A number of physicians and health care professionals who have children in the district asked the board Wednesday to maintain a mask mandate to help reduce the spread and to not overwhelm hospitals.

Other speakers asked the board to let parents choose if their children would wear masks. Some urged the board that if they did mandate face coverings, to not use Allegheny County’s spread data to adjust the policy but rather to use spread in North Allegheny communities.

Board president McClure noted that by January, all students will have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated and taking the vote now will give parents time to make decisions about vaccinating their children.

Superintendent Melissa Friez said that the district has hosted six vaccine clinics. She said that at the elementary level 2.4 percent of students are fully vaccinated, as well as 53.6 percent of middle schoolers, and 77.3 percent of high school students. Nearly 96 percent of staff are fully vaccinated.

Board member Leslie Britton Dozier said that the September policy protects students, staff, and administrators and kept students in-person — schools in the district have not closed this year.

“What we know today is that mask and vaccines are tools that we can use to stop the spread of COVID-19,” she said.

Board member Libby Blackburn said that masking is a choice the family must make, not the district.

“While I truly believe health decisions for children should be in the hands of parents, I do appreciate that we are trying to not have to go back and forth and do what is best for our community,” she said.

Board member Kevin Mahler said that while recommending masks would give parents choice, it also takes away choice for parents who want their children and their peers to wear masks.

“Let’s do something that’s evidence-based, not just on a whim, because I don’t know of anything in the Health Department who asked us to make this change,” he said.

Dr. Vidya Szymkowiak, a board member and practicing internal medicine primary care physician, said that as vaccines are available to all students and because the Allegheny County Health Department does not have a universal masking mandate, “in the spirit of following the experts and the public health professionals, the proposed policy to highly recommend is quite in line with current guidance of the county health department.”

She said that the district no longer has a large high-risk population as students have the opportunity to be vaccinated.

“This pandemic is fast-moving and ever-changing. We must be nimble and evidence-based in response to data,” she said. “A policy that made sense a year ago, or a month ago or a week ago may no longer be appropriate. With the facts and conditions before us today, the proposed policy to ‘highly recommend’ masking is not only aligned with the current guidance of the County Health Department but is also the best choice for North Allegheny.”

Corrected: December 9, 2021 at 9:27 AM EST
This story was updated to specify that masks are "strongly recommended" rather than encouraged.