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Mask mandate for Pennsylvania K-12 schools remains for now, justices rule

Student teacher Olivia Vazquez leads students through their morning meeting at the Eliza B. Kirkbride School in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.
Matt Rourke
A girl wears a mask at her Pre-K graduation ceremony almost a year ago. Now schools are deciding how looser CDC guidelines on masks affect education.

An order requiring masks inside Pennsylvania's K-12 schools and child care facilities will remain in place while the state Supreme Court considers the governor's appeal of a lawsuit that overturned the mandate, the high court ruled Tuesday.

The justices in a 5-1 decision put on hold a lower-court order that said the mask mandate would not remain in place as litigation over it continued. If the justices hadn’t acted, the mask mandate would have ended on Saturday.

The high court said its decision was not the last word and may be reconsidered after it hears oral argument in the case next week. One of the court’s two Republicans, Justice Sallie Mundy, dissented, while the other, Justice Thomas Saylor, did not participate.

In a 4-1 ruling Nov. 10, Commonwealth Court sided with a top state Senate Republican leader and others who sued over the masking order by the state's acting health secretary, which took effect in early September amid rising coronavirus cases and concerns about the surge of the delta variant.

The Commonwealth Court majority said acting Health Secretary Alison Beam lacked authority to require masks, that she did not comply with state laws about reviewing and approving regulations and that the mandate was adopted without an existing disaster emergency declared by the governor.

The majority in the lower court said the state’s disease control law does not give health secretaries “the blanket authority to create new rules and regulations out of whole cloth, provided they are related in some way to the control of disease or can otherwise be characterized as disease control measures."

State House Republicans in October sought a declaration by the obscure Joint Committee on Documents that Beam’s order had to be enacted as a regulation, but were turned down, 7-4.

“I appreciate the court scheduling oral arguments early in December so we can resolve this case as quickly as possible. We look forward to making our case that parents should be empowered to do what is best for their children,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, who sued to challenge the mask mandate.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf announced earlier this month he intends to return authority over masking decisions to local school districts in January, but will continue to require masks in child care centers and early learning programs.

Earlier Tuesday, Wolf suggested he is not considering additional containment measures as the omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads overseas. Wolf said there is no cause for panic, noting no cases of the omicron variant have been discovered in the United States.

“In Pennsylvania and around the country, the vaccine is still our strategy, so get your shot,” Wolf said on KDKA-AM radio in Pittsburgh. “Get your vaccine. That’s our strategy and it seems to be working.”

Infections, hospitalizations and intensive-care unit cases are rising in Pennsylvania and many other states. About 3,600 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, according to Department of Health figures.

Wolf called that “very few" and said he doesn’t “see any need for Pennsylvania to do anything draconian at this point,” such as limiting elective surgeries to clear up hospital space.

More than 33,000 people in Pennsylvania have died from COVID-19, according to Department of Health data.