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Pennsylvania Education Secretary Says He Can’t Mandate Masks, But He’s Urging Schools To Require Them

Charlie Neibergall

On today’s program: State Education Secretary Noe Ortega says the department can’t mandate masks, but is urging schools to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce the spread of COVID-19; a look at one family’s struggle to care for their son’s medical needs when there’s a shortage of in-home nursing care; and WESA’s arts and culture reporter Bill O’Driscoll gives an update on how performance are phasing in COVID-19 vaccination requirements. 

Education Secretary Noe Ortega weighs in on the upcoming school year and masking in classrooms

(0:00 - 10:05)

After nearly a year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic, students and teachers were looking forward to a more “normal” school year, but those plans have been disrupted by rising cases and arguments over mask requirements.

“For many schools and school leaders, the planning began months ago,” says state Education Secretary Noe Ortega. He says most districts are moving back to in-person instruction, but he would stop short of calling this a “normal” school year.

“What are we hearing from the superintendents? Difficult discussions, many impassioned parents on both sides as they move forward, but I do know the one thing I think we all want is we want our kids back in school,” says Sherri Smith, deputy director for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Ortega says the state Department of Education does not have the authority to require mask-wearing or other COVID-19 mitigation measures, but it has strongly encouraged districts to implement universal face covering rules.

The commonwealth lacks enough at-home nurses, which is putting a strain on parents

(10:08 - 15:43) 

Pennsylvania home care advocates say there is a severe shortage of at-home nurses for kids. According to the department of human services.10,000 children in the state rely on home care throughout the year.

WLVR’s Chloe Nouvelle reports, that means parents of children with complex medical needs such as tracheostomy tubes are left to fend for themselves.

Live performances are back, but some require proof of vaccination

(15:49 - 22:30) 

Over the weekend, there were 700 new cases of COVID-19 in Allegheny County and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported the county has a "high" level of transmission.

Arts venues, though, are forging ahead with plans to reopen and bring live, in-person performances back to the region.

To keep patrons safe, some venues have begun requiring proof of vaccination against COVID-19.

“The bigger ones in Pittsburgh that are doing that include Stage AE over in the North Side, which is part of a big national chain of venues,” says WESA’s arts and culture reporter Bill O’Driscoll. “Also Live Nation, which is a promoter that runs venues like PPG Arena.”

The Cultural Trust, which runs the Byham Theater and the Benedum Center Downtown, the Pittsburgh Symphony and other theater companies are also planning to require proof of vaccination when they reopen next month.

Some venues, like Stage AE are allowing patrons to bring a negative COVID-19 test taken within the last 72 hours, but that policy will expire in October, at which time only vaccinated guests will be welcome.

For venues without any vaccine requirement, there is a masking “honor system” in place. Unvaccinated patrons are supposed to wear masks, and vaccinated ones can take it off.

“Some of them, including some of the venues that are requiring vaccinations have done checks or upgrades of their HVAC systems to have better ventilation in the venues,” says O’Driscoll.

O’Driscoll says few venues have spoken publicly about what they will do should cases rise or new COVID-19 mitigation measures are put in place statewide or locally.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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