The on-again, off-again masking requirements in the North Allegheny School District continue to draw parents on both sides of the issue to school board meetings.
But, for Wednesday’s work session, the district reverted to its previous policy of only allowing those physically in attendance to speak.
Masks were supposed to become optional Tuesday at the start of the second semester. But, on Monday, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Horan issued a temporary restraining order requiring masks in all district buildings if the virus transmission rate remains high in Allegheny County.
Horan had issued a similar order in August. Both orders were requested by four immunocompromised students and their parents.
The Republican-majority school board voted 5-4 on Dec. 8 to allow parents to decide if their children should wear masks, despite the highly transmissible omicron variant.
At the time, board President Richard McClure noted that parents who do not want their children to attend school in person would have time to enroll in the North Allegheny Cyber Academy.
On Wednesday, McClure said he wanted to recognize the “amazing work” done during the pandemic by the administration, board members, teachers, staff and, especially, the school nurses that are being “stretched beyond reasonable limits.”
“They are working so hard, and it is at a level that none of us actually see,” he said. “There are a lot of cases, so they are putting in the time and putting in the effort and it is a herculean effort.”
At one point, more than 80 people were watching the meeting virtually. Seven residents addressed the board on different aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jon Parker, who ran unsuccessfully for the board in November, criticized the “lack of clarity and transparency” in not allowing those participating virtually to speak. “It makes zero sense to me,” he said. “We have the taxpayer-funded technology to make it happen.”
Parker added that public health cannot be “crowdsourced,” but the district must rely on the experts rather than the will of parents. “There are thousands of families, families like mine, who have seen our children in the emergency room with breathing problems. I’m an expert on my family. They’re experts on their families. But neither are experts in public health.”
Student Shreya Pant said students should be allowed to attend classes virtually while waiting for test results after exposure. Currently, students cannot access remote classes until they have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and Pant is concerned that students attend classes in person until their test results come back so as not to have an unexcused absence. “It is an uncomfortable position to be in,” she said.
Parent John Harrison complained that his children’s vaccination status can be seen on the parent grade portal, even though neither he nor his wife gave that information to the district.
“Can the teachers see that? If they can, that is a violation of my kids’ rights. Think about the lawsuits to come if everybody has access to that.”
Parent Brittany O’Donnell noted that the lawsuit that led to the temporary restraining order was filed more than a month after the board’s decision. In that time, many parents who had opted for the North Allegheny Cyber Academy during the first semester decided that their kids would return in person because of the mask-optional policy.
Parent Allen Stern asked if the district could find a way to have outdoor gym or modify indoor recess so that students do not have to wear masks, saying that his children come home with headaches from wearing a mask all day.
And Megan Ries, in a letter read by fellow parent Shawnelle Hazard, suggested that the district buy the four immunocompromised students “properly fitted N95 masks and pay to have them replaced on a regular basis.”
The Dec. 8 vote to allow parents to decide if their children should wear masks was along party lines, with the five Republicans — McClure, Vice-President Elizabeth “Libby” Blackburn, Marcie Crow, Dr. Vidya Szymkowiak and Shannon Yeakel — voting to change the health and safety plan that was passed with bipartisan support on Sept. 22. That plan would have kept masks mandatory if the spread was either “substantial” or “high” and optional if the spread was “moderate” or “low.”
It also came after the re-election of McClure and Szymkowiak, who were part of a Republican slate that took a $10,000 contribution from the Back to School PA political action committee, according to the PAC’s campaign finance report. The other two candidates on the “Friends of NA Education” slate were not elected.
The four Democrats on the board — Leslie Britton Dozier, Paige Hardy, Kevin Mahler and Elizabeth Warner — had voted against making masks optional. Britton Dozier and Hardy were elected in November.
North Allegheny’s meetings have drawn more than 100 residents in person and virtually. A meeting in August never began because some residents refused to wear masks. Many of the unmasked residents held up signs calling for “parents’ choice.” The Oct. 27 meeting was delayed by 43 minutes for the same reason, and the McCandless police were called to clear the high school auditorium.
The November and December meetings were held virtually.
In neighboring North Hills School District, masks are mandatory when the spread is substantial or high, and optional but recommended when the spread is moderate or low. The North Hills board reiterated its support for the plan this month, with Superintendent Patrick Mannarino saying that it is “working well for us.”
Sandy Trozzo is a freelance reporter. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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