Peters Township School District and the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh will require masking for students of all ages, faculty and staff to start the 2021-22 academic year.

The school board voted 5-4 Monday to amend Peters Township’s health and safety plan, while the diocese announced the changes to its policy in a news release Tuesday.

The Peters Township vote followed dozens of comments by township residents either supporting universal masking or imploring school board members not to amend its original plan, which went into effect July 1.

Peters Township School Board members Minna Allison, Rebecca Bowman, Ronald Dunleavy, Jennifer Grossman and Daniel Taylor voted in favor of the change, while Lisa Anderson, Rolf Briegel, Joseph Deegan and Thomas McMurray, board president, voted against mandating the use of masks.

As adopted in June, Peters Township’s health and safety plan had stated: “Face coverings will be optional unless mandated by order of the Pennsylvania secretary of health, governor or other governing authority.”

Although the state has issued no mandate, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance July 27 recommending everyone over age 2 wear masks inside school buildings.

Superintendent Jeannine French opened the board meeting with updates regarding the district’s ongoing efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 variants.

“Last year, we were one of the few districts in the nation to offer full in-person learning from the very beginning of school, and we learned a lot,” she said. “We will continue with a lot of those mitigation efforts. I want to emphasize that we will continue with our enhanced cleaning. We will continue with increasing air flow, keeping physical distance.”

During the 2020-21 school year, students opting for remote learning reduced in-person attendance, which in turn allowed for sufficient distancing between individuals.

“This year – I want to be completely transparent – we will not have six feet of space in all of our areas. So we will be following with the recommendation that we will maintain at least three feet of space,” French said. “Our elementary children, K to 3, will be eating lunches in their classrooms. Above their grade level, we’ll be utilizing large group areas so we’re able to get physical distancing.”

She said the Pennsylvania Department of Health has changed its requirements with regard to “close contact,” defined as “an individual who has been exposed to an infected person within six feet for more than 15 consecutive minutes.”

“If both individuals, the infected individual and the exposed individual, are both masked, the exposed individual will not have to leave school,” French said. “So it’s another way we’re preserving time in school.”

In response to questions and suggestions received by district officials from township residents, attorney Rebecca Heaton Hall of Weiss Burkardt Kramer LLC addressed some applicable laws.

“We are required under the Pennsylvania Code to report the spread of any communicable disease within 24 hours. If school administration fails to report those cases, school administration can be subjected to criminal or professional licensing penalties,” she said. “School administrators are also prohibited from interfering in any investigation that may come from the reporting of the communicable disease.”

She noted state law also contains “provisions that outline and mandate isolation and quarantine procedures for school students and staff with a communicable disease.”

“If we also suspect that a student has a communicable disease, or if you’ve come into contact with others with the communicable disease, we also have to follow isolation and quarantine procedures,” she said.

The Department of Health is granted the authority to implement any “disease-control measure the department or the local health authority considers to be appropriate for the surveillance of the disease,” she said. “This includes the Department of Health’s ability to close our school buildings.”

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh announced schools in the diocese will begin the 2021-2022 school year with mandatory masking indoors for students, faculty and staff, regardless of vaccination status, unless medical or developmental conditions prohibit their use.

“Although we had hoped to be in a position to allow optional masking, that is not possible at this point in time,” Michelle Peduto, director of Catholic Schools, wrote in an Aug. 17 letter to students, families, teachers and staff. “The protocols for quarantining in an optional-mask environment would significantly compromise our ability to provide in-person instruction. We must evaluate how the first month of classroom instruction impacts COVID numbers for students of all ages.”

During the 2020-2021 school year, schools of the Diocese of Pittsburgh provided in-person instruction. Some grades or schools occasionally closed temporarily to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Peduto wrote that, with emerging variants of COVID-19 in mind, “Our goals continue to be to keep staff and students safe while providing five-day-a-week in-person instruction.”

The diocese drew on guidelines from county, state and federal public health agencies, and the counsel of local pediatric and infectious disease physicians.

Peduto said frequent mask breaks will be provided, optimally outside.

Schools will continue to adhere to cleaning and disinfecting procedures, and will keep classrooms properly ventilated.

Positive coronavirus cases will continue to be reported to the health departments.

Peduto said the mask policy will be re-evaluated in late September, and the policy is subject to change, based on updated federal, state and county guidance.

“The mission of our Catholic schools is to provide an environment where your children, God’s children, can encounter Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior each day. We live that mission by loving God above all things and loving our neighbor above ourselves. It is our belief that this policy statement best demonstrates both,” Peduto wrote.

Staff writer Karen Mansfield contributed to this story.

Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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