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State expects to lift school mask mandate in January, turning decisions over to districts

On today’s episode of The Confluence: The Associated Press’ Marc Levy lays out the Wolf administration’s update to the mask mandate for K-12 schools, and the legal challenges the existing policy has attracted; and a director with a film in the upcoming Three Rivers Film Festival tells us about her movie, while the executive director of Film Pittsburgh previews what to expect at the now in-person event. 

Gov. Wolf intends to lift school mask mandate in January
(0:00 - 7:05)

Whether students will be required to wear masks in kindergarten to 12th grade classrooms in Pennsylvania will likely be back in the hands of school district officials in two months.

Governor Tom Wolf said he intends to end the state mandate January 17.

“They are saying, ‘Look, the mask mandate worked. It has worked to prevent the spread of the virus in schools,’” says Marc Levy, reporter for the Associated Press.

Levy says some districts who had enacted a mask mandate before Wolf’s came down may keep their mandate in place, but others told the AP they look forward to when the mandate is repealed.

“The other thing to be aware of is there is a legal challenge pending against the mask mandate, and it is being fast-tracked in the statewide court, the commonwealth court,” says Levy.

Today, Commonwealth Court threw out the mask mandate for K-12 schools in the state. In a divided opinion, the Republican-controlled court ruled that acting Health Secretary Alison Beam did not have the authority to issue the masking order, the mandate did not comply with rules for setting regulations, and was adopted without an existing disaster emergency declared by the governor.

A Wolf administration spokesperson says the Department of Health is appealing the decision to the State Supreme Court, leaving the mandate in place for now.

Three Rivers Film Festival returns both in-person and online
(7:13 - 22:30)

The Three Rivers Film Festival starts today and runs through November 17, independent films will be available for audiences in-person and virtually.

“It’s just so exciting to be back in-person and to have people in the theater, watching a movie on the big screen,” says Kathryn Spitz Cohan, executive director of Film Pittsburgh.

“We made the decision in May to move forward with in-person, always knowing that the research and finances that we invested last year in creating a virtual platform would be something that we would offer as well,” says Spitz Cohan.

One of the films showing during the festival is “Now Return Us To Normal,” directed by Pittsburgh-based filmmaker Leslie Koren. It’s about Koren’s experiences as a teen at the Oakley School, a so-called “therapeutic boarding school."

The film features interviews with Koren’s parents, classmates that went to the school, and she discusses mental health struggles and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I wanted to shed light on the personal experience of being sent away as a troubled teen, as an at-risk youth after I had a PTSD flashback when I was in grad school,” says Koren. “Being in the film was a by-product of interviewing my peers. I did not intend to be in it, or have it be part of the genre of personal essay [documentary] filmmaking.”

Koren says although her film had been in the works for a while, it seems apt that it’s in a festival during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“This was just another pivot, and we saw a lot of great responses and things come out of virtual cinema,” says Koren. “I’m really thrilled for a film like this to be in a theater, ... but we were also able to reach people in the film festival moment far and wide at our premiere and other places because we had to move online.”

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. 

Updated: November 10, 2021 at 2:25 PM EST
This story was updated to include a ruling from Commonwealth Court on Governor Tom Wolf's mask mandate.
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