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Pittsburgh Public Schools board will wait until April to vote on making masks optional in schools

A PPS educator gets his COVID-19 vaccine at Heinz Field on March 11, 2021.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A PPS educator gets his COVID-19 vaccine at Heinz Field on March 11, 2021.

When the Pittsburgh Public Schools board considers an updated health and safety plan during its voting meeting next Wednesday, it will only consider lifting a mask requirement for the performing arts and wait until April to consider making masks optional within schools.

Athletics within Pittsburgh Public have been mask optional all year, though a mandate has remained in place in schools and on transportation.

The administration wants to forgo masks entirely. It presented an updated plan during Wednesday’s Agenda Review meeting that would only mandate masking when Allegheny County was at a high level of COVID-19 risk. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance to suggest that schools can lift mandates when there are low or medium levels of COVID-19 community spread.

Allegheny County is in a low level of spread, so many districts have removed their mandates. As of last week, Pittsburgh Public was the only of the region’s largest 20 districts to maintain universal masking.

Board President Sala Udin said Wednesday that the board’s executive committee wants more time to evaluate if that’s appropriate for a district of more than 20,000 students.

The district’s contracted physician Dr. Martin Gregorio told the board Wednesday that now is an appropriate time to remove universal masking.

He said that COVID-19 variants will fluctuate but that the severity of the variant would decide if the district would return to universal masking.

“If we go mask optional, it does not mean that we are … going mask optional forever. What it does is put us on a sliding scale for decision making,” he said. “And that is based on the severity of the current variant we will make decisions on whether or not masks go fully up or if we go mask optional.”

But board member Pam Harbin noted that many students are not attending class because they are in isolation with COVID-19 or in quarantine after having close contact with an infected person. Students don’t have access to live instruction when in these situations. While Harbin said doesn’t disagree that masks can be removed now, she doesn’t think the district should use the CDC’s guidance to reinstate a mandate. She said that while the guidance uses hospital bed data to determine risk levels, she wants to use case counts within schools.

“Our unique circumstances have thousands of kids at home with no education is something that should have been considered before [the plan] came to us, and it wasn’t,” she said.

The public can weigh in on masking during the board’s monthly public hearing at 6 p.m. on Monday.