PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – The issue of mandating masks is dividing school districts and school boards across the region. To some, it’s a matter of health and safety. To others, it’s an issue of choice and individual freedom.

At 1 a.m. Thursday, the North Allegheny school board voted to overturn the superintendent’s order to requiring mandatory masking — one more heated debate over masking that has gripped the region.

A vote on masks was not even on the agenda, but Vienna Zamperini, a rising second-grader, addressed the board, thanking the district for making them mandatory.

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“I was very glad you changed the mask policy because I was very nervous this summer,” she said.

But a heated debate ensued and lasted hours. Finally after 1 a.m., the board voted 6 to 3 to instead make masks optional.

As the first day of school approaches, the debate grows ever more heated.

“I believe that if you give parents choice, you are allowing a select group of parents to decide to hurt other children by transmitting a deadly virus to other kids,” said pro-mask parent Lynne Williams.

“What is best for my child may not be best for your child and vice versa. So as parents, we should have the freedom to make the choices that are best for our kids,” said Judy Rumpler.

The North Allegheny school board overturned the superintendent’s order, and the district put out a statement saying that when school starts on Monday, the choice will be up to the individual parent.

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“Very happy. Definitely, it should be a choice of the parents not of the school,” said Heidi Lyon from Wexford.

While districts mandating masks like Pittsburgh, Fox Chapel and Shaler are in the majority in Allegheny County, they are in the minority throughout the region. In the absence of a mandatory order from the state Health Department, districts by and large are recommending but not ordering mask-wearing.

The Butler Area School solicitor says the school board doesn’t have the power to order mandatory masking and in North Allegheny, the board overruled its own superintendent to the upset of some parents.

“She is the only person who is in contact with the Health Department and the district physician and it’s with her purview to decide what is best for our students,” said parent Katie Leslie.

One notable exception is the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which as a private institution can make its own rules. Despite pushback from many parents, the Diocese believes masks were the key to providing in-classroom instruction last school year.

“We did close for a period of time but most of the time we were open and I do attribute that to masks,” said Michelle Peduto with the Diocese.

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But again, without an order from the state Health Department, this issue is being decided district by district and it will remain very divisive as COVID numbers continue to rise.