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School leaders react to mask rules

The state Department of Health has again revised its mask-wearing mandate for Pennsylvania schools.

But leaders of most area school districts seem to be prepared to meet that mandate and to make things work.

Altoona Area School District Superintendent Charles Prijatelj warned earlier this summer that with its school reopening plans, nothing was final and adjustments would be made as new directives by the state departments of Health and Education were handed down.

Most area districts plans called for face coverings to be worn in common areas or areas where social distancing couldn’t be attained, but allowed for them to be removed once inside the classroom with proper social distancing. But the latest mandate from the state says that face coverings must be worn everywhere in the building, including the classroom, with 10-minute “mask breaks” permitted throughout the day.

State Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said Tuesday that students may remove masks only when eating or drinking and spaced at least 6 feet apart, or in a situation where wearing a mask creates an unsafe condition in which to operate equipment or execute a task.

Face covering breaks cannot last longer than 10 minutes and the 6-foot social distancing rule must be followed.

Prijatelj said the idea behind the 10-minute rule is the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guideline that if someone has contact with a COVID-19 infected person for more than 15 minutes, that person must be quarantined.

Prijatelj said the way the district has set up its reopening plan for grades K-5, social distancing guidelines have already been met so mask breaks will not be an issue.

Prijatelj said the original reopening plan allowed students to take their masks off while in class, but with the new mandate, that is no longer the case. Still, he said, the district is prepared to make it work.

“We have set up K-5 to ensure the number of kids in the classroom will allow us to have social distancing at all times,” he said. “With the new regulations, we are not going to be able to just demask, but we will be able to take mask breaks any time when needed.

Prijatelj said district teachers will choose how to space out mask breaks. He said the district is doing everything it can to maintain the safety of students while following state guidelines and are asking for help in that area.

“We are looking for retired teachers who would be willing to come back for 45 days to help us with social distancing and spacing out of classes,” he said. “It won’t impact their retirement, but it will greatly impact the students.”

Bishop Guilfoyle President Joseph Adams said the school is still going ahead with its full reopening plan and that adjustments will be made for the mask mandate.

“We are going to be using some outdoor spaces, setting up tents to get the kids outside,” he said.

Adams said he doesn’t see any problems with the mandate because the students will find a way to adjust.

“Kids will find coverings that are comfortable and get used to it,” he said.

Hollidaysburg Area School District Superintendent Robert Gildea said the state releasing a new mandate so close to the beginning of the school year is disappointing.

“To say that superintendents are disappointed that there are additional mandates being released a week before school starts is an understatement,” he said.

Hollidaysburg is beginning the year with a hybrid model that enabled the district to achieve social distancing standards in all of its buildings. Gildea said other than adjustments for the new mask mandate, the district is forging ahead with its reopening plan.

“For us, it really doesn’t change our approach,” he said. “We are going to provide mask breaks as frequently as needed in a safe classroom environment.”

When Hollidaysburg began discussing its reopening plans this summer, one of the concerns when it came to wearing masks was the lack of air conditioning at the junior high and elementary buildings, and Gildea said they will monitor that closely and adjust as needed.

“On those afternoons when the heat becomes excessive in classrooms, we will implement multiple mask breaks,” he said.

The Spring Cove School District is planning a full reopening.

Superintendent Betsy Baker said for school to stay open, they have to do what the state requires and, like Adams, she said everyone will make the adjustment.

“There are a variety of acceptable face coverings so students and staff may wear the type that works best for them,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer Rick Boston is at 946-7535.

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