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State Officials Encourage Masks In Class, Free COVID-19 Testing As The School Year Begins

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Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Mt. Lebanon High School welcomed students back to class Monday.

State health and education officials joined Mt. Lebanon School District administrators Monday to welcome students back to school and to call on all Pennsylvania schools to implement mask requirements.

Mt. Lebanon is one of more than 20 Allegheny County school districts with a universal masking policy in place this fall. District students returned to class Monday.

“The safest strategy we could use is to start off with universal masking for everyone,” Mt. Lebanon superintendent Tim Steinhauer said.

He was joined by Dr. Denise Johnson, Pennsylvania’s acting physician general, state Education Secretary Noe Ortega; Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and other state officials at the Fine Arts Theatre at Mt. Lebanon High School.

The district may relax its mask policy if cases decrease and health officials change their recommendations, Steinhauer added. District schools also have implemented physical distancing, adjusted lunch periods to avoid crowding and improved ventilation.

Fitzgerald applauded Mt. Lebanon's measures as a good example of safely bringing students to the classroom during the pandemic.

“The mask mandate is certainly the way to keep everybody safe. We know these things work,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re certainly encouraging all 43 of our school districts in Allegheny County to follow the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines and recommendations.”

According to the county executive’s office, these school districts have announced universal masking policies so far: Allegheny Valley, Avonworth, Clairton City, East Allegheny, Fox Chapel Area, Gateway, Hampton, Keystone Oaks, Montour, Moon Area, Mt. Lebanon, North Allegheny, North Hills, Northgate, Pine-Richland, Pittsburgh Public Schools, Riverview, Shaler, South Fayette, West Mifflin, Wilkinsburg, Woodland Hills and schools within the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese.

Officials so far have declined to mandate masks in schools statewide despite the sharp rise in cases of COVID-19 among children.

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Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Mt. Lebanon School District has implemented a universal masking policy for this school year.

Instead, state officials will offer support for districts that opt to mandate masks on their own, Ortega said. When asked what legal standing districts have to enforce COVID-19 mitigation measures, Ortega said these policies fall in line with other decisions districts make about the health and safety of students.

“This is no different. Schools have permission to begin to put these policies in place,” he said, noting that the Department of Education has consulted legal counsel on the matter. “Schools have the authority to be able to put [policies such as a mask mandate] in place … especially when there are federal guidelines coming through that have made some requirements.” He cited the CDC mask requirement for buses, trains and planes as an example.

Ortega said officials will continue to rely on individual school districts to determine what mitigation measures should apply to their students. According to Ortega, a lesson he’s learned during the past 16 months is that different districts require different mitigation approaches.

“Circumstances were very different across the entire commonwealth when it came to making decisions about mitigation efforts. This is especially true when schools began to do things … that ended up minimizing transmission at the local level,” he said. “We know that difference is going to exist.”

While officials are strongly recommending masks, Ortega stressed, they are only one piece of what he called a “menu” of strategies. Among those strategies is a state-sponsored COVID-19 testing program for schools announced last week.

The program is available to all K-12 school districts. It uses pooled classroom testing, which combines anterior nasal swab samples from all consenting individuals in a classroom and runs them as a single test to determine the presence of the virus in a school.

Boston-based Concentric by Ginkgo Bioworks will run the program. The company already operates in Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and other states.

School districts must opt-in to participate in the program, and parents must give consent. According to Steinhauer, Mt. Lebanon schools will be participating in the testing program. The district also is encouraging students age 12 and over to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Food and Drug Administration on Monday granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for individuals 16 and older. The approval replaces the emergency-use authorization that granted administration of the vaccine previously. The vaccine will be marketed as Comirnaty, a name which combines the terms COVID-19, mRNA, community and immunity, according to Pfizer.

The vaccine remains available under emergency-use authorization for those ages 12 through 15 and for the administration of a third dose in certain immunocompromised individuals.

Full approval could make it easier for employers, universities and the military to mandate vaccines. Johnson said state officials aren’t yet considering mandating vaccines for public school students of qualifying age. The state does require immunizations for K-12 students for diseases including measles, mumps, chickenpox and hepatitis B.

“I think we’re looking at all options, no other decisions right now. We just still continue to encourage everyone who is eligible to get their vaccinations,” Johnson said.

Also Monday, the board of the Environmental Charter School in Pittsburgh announced that all staff must provide proof of vaccination or submit regular COVID-19 test results by Sept.15.

“COVID has presented us with many challenges, many of which have been out of our control. We have a responsibility to our school community to be vigilant in all areas that are under our control: universal masking, mandating vaccination for all eligible adults, encouraging vaccination for all eligible children and providing safe and clean spaces for our children to learn,” Sapna Parker, ECS board member and local pediatrician, said in a release.

The policy, which accommodates some exemptions, puts the Environmental Charter School among the first in the region to require vaccines or regular testing.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.
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