Pittsburgh Public Schools retains mask mandate, though performing arts students can remove them

Board members say they need more time to decide what would entice Pittsburgh public school students and staff to go back to masking if they were to take them off. Although the administration initially laid out a plan to lift the masking, the board will postpone that vote until next month.

He voted 7-2 on Wednesday to lift the mask mandate for performing arts students while they perform. Gene Walker and Bill Gallagher rejected the amendment. Walker said he disagreed with “exclusions” for certain groups of students.

At a public hearing on Monday, three students from Allderdice High School urged the council to let them play without masks. They said it would improve the experience and noted that Athletics did not have to wear masks this school year.

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

The district is the only recalcitrant in the region. Woodland Hills will move to optional masking on Monday, and other districts removed mandates when the CDC updated guidelines last month. The new guidelines indicate that Allegheny County is at low risk for the spread of COVID-19 in the community, which means schools are not recommended to mandate masking throughout the day.

Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services Rodney Neccai said Wednesday that administrators were working on a “test to stay” program that would be available at all schools. People exposed to someone with COVID-19 would be tested between days two and four, and then again on day five. If rapid tests are negative, individuals will not have to quarantine. Neccai said he hopes the program will be available around spring break.

The district offers pool testing for schools in athletics and now performing arts, though it’s not required.

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

Board chairman Sala Udin said he wanted to keep masking up until “we are at least certain that there is no more outbreak of the pandemic after the holidays of spring”. He also suggested that black students are more susceptible to the virus and are at disproportionate risk.

Udin said the council would review its mask policy next month, although another council member requested a special meeting be held earlier.

The board also approved the expenditure of $50,000 to hire a recruiting firm to fill the position of district superintendent. Wayne Walters has served in an interim role since the departure of former superintendent Anthony Hamlet at the start of the school year.