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Education

Pittsburgh Public Schools keeps mask mandate, though performing arts students can take them off

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MATT ROURKE / AP
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Board members say they need more time to decide what would prompt Pittsburgh Public Schools students and staff to return to masking if they were to take them off. Though the administration initially presented a plan to lift masking, the board will hold off on that vote until next month.

It did vote 7-2 Wednesday to lift the mask mandate for performing arts students while they are performing. Gene Walker and Bill Gallagher voted down the amendment. Walker said he disagreed with “carveouts” for certain student groups.

During a public hearing Monday, three Allderdice High School students urged the board to let them perform without masks. They said it would improve the experience and noted that athletics haven’t had to wear masks this school year.

As for wearing face coverings during the school day, the administration revised its recommendation to make masking optional based on discussion during last week’s agenda review meeting. Board members said they wanted to wait until all students, including pre-kindergarten, have the option to be vaccinated. Others said they wanted the decision to return to masking to be driven by student cases rather than available hospital beds, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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The district is the lone holdout in the region. Woodland Hills will move to optional masking on Monday, and other districts removed mandates when the CDC updated guidance last month. The new guidance says that Allegheny County is at low risk of COVID-19 community spread, meaning schools aren’t recommended to mandate masking throughout the day.

Assistant Superintendent for student support services, Rodney Neccai, said Wednesday that administrators are working on a “test-to-stay” program to be available to all schools. Individuals exposed to a person with COVID-19 would test between days two and four and again on day five. If the rapid tests are negative, individuals won’t have to quarantine. Neccai said he hopes to have the program available around spring break.

The district does offer pool testing to schools for athletics and now performing arts, though it’s not mandatory.

On Monday, the board heard from about a dozen speakers on masking, a majority of whom asked the district to make them optional.

Board president Sala Udin said that he wants to continue masking until “we are at least certain that there’s no further explosion of the pandemic after the spring break.” He also suggested that Black students are more susceptible to the virus and are disproportionately at risk.

Udin said that the board would consider its mask policy again next month, though another board member asked for a special meeting to happen earlier.

The board also approved spending $50,000 to hire a search firm to fill the district’s superintendent position. Wayne Walters has served in an interim capacity since former Superintendent Anthony Hamlet left at the beginning of the school year.

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