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Norwin School District makes masks optional, defying state mandate

Virus Outbreak US masks schools kids education teachers masking mask mandate
Robert F. Bukaty
In this Oct. 7, 2021, file photo, Sarah Staffiere adjusts a face covering on her daughter, Natalie, before school.

One of the region’s largest school districts made masks optional within its buildings this week even though it does not have the authority to do so.

Just hours after Commonwealth Court threw out a state school mask mandate on Wednesday, Norwin School District Superintendent Jeff Taylor sent a message to families saying face coverings would be optional as of 4 p.m. The Westmoreland County school district enrolls nearly 5,300 students.

“As explicitly stated in our last school board-approved Health and Safety Plan, wearing face coverings would be optional absent any legal mandates issued from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, state or federal government regarding the use of face coverings for students, employees and visitors,” Taylor said in the email.

But the state appealed Commonwealth Court’s decision, meaning the mandate would stay in place throughout legal proceedings. State Secretary of Education Noe Ortega notified all schools Wednesday that the ruling remained in effect.

“School masking is a necessary public health measure to keep children safe and provide them with as much in-person learning in school as possible,” he wrote. “Requiring masks in schools is helping to keep students in classrooms and the virus out and is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.”

Taylor and other district officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Schools that don’t enforce the masking mandate could "lose the protection of sovereign immunity and may personally face lawsuits from those who may be affected by any official’s attempt to ignore the order,” according to Gov. Tom Wolf’s press secretary Elizabeth Rementer.

Earlier this week before the ruling, Wolf announced that the state’s school mask order would be lifted Jan. 17 when districts would have to determine their own policies.

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.
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