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Pennsylvania Mandates Masks In K-12 Schools, Day Cares

Masked Kid
Keith Srakocic

Masks will be required in all Pennsylvania public and private schools, as well as child care facilities, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Tuesday, reversing course amid a statewide COVID-19 resurgence that is filling hospital beds just as students return to class.

The Department of Health order will take effect Tuesday, Sept. 7 — a week or more after the start of school in many districts — and will require students, teachers and staff to wear masks when inside, the Wolf administration said.

The order will not apply to student athletes while they're playing, nor outdoor activities.

"Wearing a mask in school is necessary to keep our children in the classroom and to keep COVID out of that classroom,” Wolf said at a news conference Tuesday.

State officials have repeatedly recommended masks for children, teachers and staff as cases of COVID-19 among children climb. But as recently as last week, the Wolf administration has said a mask mandate was not on the horizon. Wolf was asked Tuesday why he reversed course.

“I preferred for local school boards to make this decision. Unfortunately, an aggressive nationwide campaign is spreading misinformation about mask-wearing and pressuring and intimidating school districts to reject mask policies that will keep kids safe and in school,” Wolf said.

Fewer than half of school districts have enacted mask policies ahead of students returning to class. Wolf said parents have asked his administration to do something.

“My office has seen an outpouring of messages and calls, primarily from parents of young children, concerned about the lack of mask requirements in the schools they’re sending those children to.” said Wolf.

The governor was asked to speak directly to parents that have been passionately against mask requirements across the state.

“If we don’t do this, where does that leave us?” Wolf asked. “School events are canceled, school is canceled, students are sent home to quarantine, [and] parents have to stay home away from work to take care of those kids while they’re in quarantine.”

Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, released a statement noting that her support for the masking requirement: “In the last month, we have seen increasing cases of COVID-19 among children, especially those who are not yet eligible for vaccination. Today’s action by the state ensures that we are all taking the appropriate steps to protect our children while also providing for reasonable exceptions."

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association said that the decision on masking should have been left to local school officials, but that it would nevertheless remind school districts "of their legal obligation related to the directive.”

“Our members remain committed to the health and safety of their students and staff, and while they have welcomed the expertise and guidance of state and federal agencies, they are in the best position to evaluate and promptly respond to the ever-evolving conditions in their own communities,” said Nathan Mains, the group's chief executive officer.

The Democratic governor took action after the Republican leaders of the House and Senate rejected his request to pass legislation requiring masks in classrooms. GOP lawmakers acknowledged that coronavirus cases are again surging across the state but insisted that local leaders were best positioned to respond to the pandemic.

Reaction from Pennsylvania Republicans to Tuesday's order has been swift.

“The best approach to protecting the health and safety of Pennsylvanians from the COVID-19 delta variant is a personal and local decision not a government decision,” Pennsylvania Senate majority leader Kim Ward said Tuesday.

“While I believe Gov. Wolf’s efforts are well intended, his approach is not based on data nor does it consider the demographics, geography, and cultures across the Commonwealth.”

Alison Beam, Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of health, said that COVID-19 cases among Pennsylvanians under 18 increased by 277% between mid-July and the end of August.

“Nearly half of those kids are not old enough to get the vaccine,” Beam pointed out. According to Pennsylvania’s Department of Health, 98% of COVID-19 cases in the state are the delta variant.

Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff cited a recently passed constitutional amendment in his statement which alludes to potential legal action in relation to the order.

“House Republicans stand ready to follow through on that and are already in the process of taking a serious look at potential legislative changes that address this administration’s misuse of current law,” Benninghoff said.

“We share in the goal of promoting public health and ending this pandemic as quickly as possible. As we review the specifics of this mandate, all options remain on the table.”

In the press conference Tuesday, Wolf said the state Health Department has the authority to order masks in Pennsylvania’s classrooms.

“This is not coming from an emergency declaration on my part,” Wolf said. “It’s a power and authority [the department has had] since the late 20s.”

State Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, said Tuesday that the 10 school districts he represents have worked up their own plans to mitigate COVID-19. He said the coming statewide mandate makes him “beyond furious.”

“If somehow they’re trying to find a way to take this away, that will be a breathtaking example of bureaucratic overreach,” said Topper, a senior member of the House Education Committee.

Less than a month ago, Wolf himself had ruled out a statewide mask mandate for schools after requiring them last year. But the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus has changed the administration’s calculus about what is needed to keep students in class.

Pennsylvania is now averaging more than 3,200 new, confirmed infections daily — 20 times the number of cases it was reporting on a typical day in early July. More than 1,700 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, up sevenfold since last month. Deaths have doubled in two weeks to about 20 per day.

Pennsylvania’s two statewide teachers unions had urged K-12 schools to require masks in school buildings, citing delta’s threat. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks in schools for students, staff and teachers.

But masking is a highly contentious issue, and school board meetings have been the scene of heated debate as parents argue for and against.

Last week, a federal judge ordered the North Allegheny School District and its board to require face coverings for students, staff and visitors, siding with a group of parents in the Pittsburgh suburbs who had sued. Likewise, parents of special needs children sued a suburban Philadelphia school board that refused to mandate masks. That case was pending when word of the impending statewide mandate emerged.

Some schools have reimposed mask mandates on their own after starting out the year without them.

The North Schuylkill School District began requiring masks indoors after it was forced to quarantine 60 students. It said only 11 students would have needed to quarantine if masking had been in place.

WITF's Sam Dunklau contributed to this report.

Updated: August 31, 2021 at 5:08 PM EDT
This story was updated to include reaction from Pennsylvania Republicans to Tuesday's order.
Updated: August 31, 2021 at 2:38 PM EDT
Updated to add more context from Wolf's announcement.
Kiley covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.