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Board votes 6–3 to adopt plan; administration says district will adapt as necessary
Face masks will be optional but “strongly recommended” for students, faculty and staff in McKeesport Area schools when classes resume Aug. 23.
The school board was split 6-3 on the decision, with Dave Donato, Diane Elias, Tom Fioltei, Ivan Hampton, Jim Poston and Joe Lopretto in favor, and Jim Brown, Steve Kondrosky and Mindy Lundberg opposed.
Masks will be required on school buses and if the Allegheny County Health Department or state officials re-institute a face mask requirement, the district will shift its policy, Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman Jr. said.
“It’s a family’s choice (and) the student’s choice to wear a mask if they so choose,” he said.
“We will continue to practice mitigation strategies in our schools around social distancing and managing the way in which students transition in the building, the way they eat lunch, things of that nature,” Holtzman said. “At this point, approximately half of the Allegheny County schools are providing optional opportunities for their staff and students to wear masks based on the needs of their community.”
Other mitigation strategies in place include ample access to hand sanitizer, one-way hallways, requiring students to face forward in the cafeteria, and maintaining social distancing of at least three feet between students in classrooms, he said.
McKeesport Area School District has had 221 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since September 2020, including 132 among students, according to the district’s website.
After months of declines, cases of COVID-19 are on the rise nationally, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is now responsible for about 90 percent of new COVID-19 cases, the CDC reports.
Experts have said the Delta strain of SARS-CoV-2 is far more contagious than previous strains of the virus because the Delta variant is transmitted more easily, and to more people at one time.
“Hopefully this new strain doesn’t put a strain on us,” Lopretto said.
The Allegheny County Health Department said that over the past week, there have been 181 new cases of COVID-19 in the county and one death.
Steven Singer, a teacher, McKeesport parent and education activist who blogs about public schooling as “The Gadfly on the Wall,” spoke to the board to argue for more strict safety protocols.
He noted that only 63 percent of Pennsylvania adults have been fully vaccinated against the virus, and that the vaccine is still not available for children under 12.
Citing experts from UPMC, Singer also said that the Delta variant is more contagious for children than previous versions of the virus.
The “only way to protect children under 12 is for those of us over 12 to get vaccinated and wear masks,” Singer said.
“You have an obligation to safeguard every child and adult,” said Singer. “Don’t listen to me, listen to [the experts]. Mandate masks at MASD. It is not difficult. You did it last year, you can do it this year, no problem.”
Singer urged the school directors to “please put your politics aside ... This is not about which school district is tougher, or proving a point about your independence and economy. This is about keeping children safe. Please do the right thing: mandate masks and vaccinations.”
Lundberg, in discussion with Holtzman prior to the vote, also questioned the policy, asking how the district intends to deal with the potential greater numbers of students and staff who will need to go into isolation periods.
Holtzman said he will have weekly meetings with representatives of the county health department to monitor the situation and adapt as necessary.
The complete health and safety plan is available on district social media channels and on the district website.
In other business, Lopretto began the meeting by addressing the July resignation, and re-hiring, of Holtzman as district superintendent. He said the decision was a legal technicality so that the district could extend Holtzman’s contract and was made on the advice of the school board’s solicitor.
Lopretto pointed out that the board did the same thing in 2018, without controversy, and read from the minutes of the school board meeting when it happened.
The first day of school for students is Aug. 23, with kindergarten, sixth-grade and freshman orientations occurring throughout this week.
Siana Emery is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh’s South Hilltop. She has also written for The Mennonite World Review, Goshen College Communications and Marketing and The Goshen College Record. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Editor Jason Togyer contributed additional reporting.
Originally published August 19, 2021.