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Pittsburgh school district to enforce masking only at a high level of COVID-19, not medium

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.

When students return to Pittsburgh Public Schools classrooms, they will likely be mandated to wear face coverings as Allegheny County currently is in a high level of COVID-19. But if that changes to medium, masks will be optional.

According to school board member Pam Harbin, the board was only informed of the administration’s proposed change on Tuesday night when they were asked how members felt about changing the mask policy.

“We have something in place, and if you wanted to change it, it would have made sense to me to bring something to the board saying why you want to change it. Instead, what we got was, ‘What are your feelings about masking?' No data. What do feelings have to do with making public health policy?” she said.

She said the public did not have an opportunity to comment on the change because it was introduced after the board’s monthly public hearing on Monday. At that hearing, two school nurses urged the board to follow CDC guidance, but each only commented on the district’s quarantine policy, not masking.

Board member Kevin Carter agreed that the public should have been allowed to weigh in. The district also confirmed that the change was not discussed with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers union, though that is not required.

In the spring, the board approved a more stringent approach to masking than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended. In PPS buildings, masking was enforced at both medium and high community levels of COVID-19. The district also will only require quarantine for a student who tests positive for the virus, per CDC guidance.

Administrators did not give a reason for the recommendation other than the district was following CDC guidance. Harbin asked how students would benefit from the change.

Chief Operations Officer Mike McNamara told her that the district was also following CDC guidance to eliminate quarantine for those exposed to the virus so that more students would spend more time in schools.

“We removed quarantine, so we will have a lot more students that will be in school — masked if they are a close contact, so we will have much less out-of-school time for students,” he said.

Students will also have access to testing kits to take home, McNamara noted.

Board member Gene Walker said that while COVID-19 may be a part of their decision-making process for many years, it’s important to return schools back to “as close to normal as we can.”

He said that the administration should have the flexibility to adjust mitigation strategies based on what they’re seeing in schools.

“I think this is just an important way for us as a board to turn over control to an administration we’re paying lots of money to do a job, and I think we should let them do that job,” Walker said.

Board president Sala Udin also questioned the move.

“I have yet to hear a data-driven argument from those who want to reduce masking,” he said.

Harbin said that the board did not have enough data to inform the decision.

“So I think we wait. We leave the health and safety plan as it is, and we do this right. We look at data, and we make an informed decision as policymakers … that is what I think my job is,” she said.

The board approved the measure to follow CDC guidance by a vote of 5-3, with one member abstaining.