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Mask opt-out bill for students clears Senate committee

masks schools coronavirus mandate mask COVID-19 student teacher education classroom school
Lynne Sladky
Student Winston Wallace, 9, raises his hand in class at iPrep Academy on the first day of school, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021, in Miami.

A bill that would allow parents in Pennsylvania to exempt their children from wearing a mask at school cleared a state Senate committee on Tuesday as Republican lawmakers started making good on their pledge to counter the governor’s statewide mask mandate.

The legislation would hand the ultimate decision on masking at school to parents and guardians, allowing them to overrule any face-covering mandate imposed by the state Department of Health, a local health department or a school board.

The Senate Education Committee approved the bill on a party-line vote. It requires passage by the full Senate and the House before going to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, whose office said he opposes the bill.

GOP leaders had promised to mount a legislative response to Wolf’s statewide mask mandate for schools, which requires students, staff and visitors at K-12 schools and child care facilities to wear masks while indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

Wolf has said a universal, statewide order was necessary after most Pennsylvania school districts did not impose their own mask mandates and the delta variant of the coronavirus caused a statewide surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Some school boards and anti-mask parents and students have vehemently opposed the order, saying without scientific evidence that masks inhibit breathing and cause other problems and that it should remain a parental decision. There is strong evidence that masking children in schools can reduce COVID-19 transmission.

“My office has been overwhelmed with calls and emails from parents so upset with the masking mandates from the Wolf administration and from our own school districts,” the bill’s co-sponsor, state Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, said in an Education Committee meeting.

The original legislation only applied to mask mandates imposed by state and local health authorities, but was expanded Tuesday to include masking orders from a school board. The bill would also prohibit schools from keeping unmasked students away from other students or excluding them from any school-sponsored activities.

Wolf's office lambasted the effort.

“The bill supporters’ efforts would better serve their constituents and the commonwealth as a whole by focusing on increasing the vaccination rates within their legislative districts instead of working on this unnecessary legislation," said Wolf's spokesperson, Lyndsay Kensinger. “We need Republicans to stop spending their time undermining public health and instead encourage people to get vaccinated.”

The governor's office released data on Monday showing that Republicans represent nearly all of the least-vaccinated legislative districts in Pennsylvania.

In the state House, meanwhile, GOP leaders got behind an effort Tuesday to give tuition money to parents who disagree with a school district’s COVID-19 mitigation measure. But the legislation fell short of the votes required for passage, with nearly 20 Republicans defecting amid questions about how much the program would cost and whether the grants were taxable for federal purposes.

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