Amid questions over mask-wearing requirements in schools, Gov. Tom Wolf's administration is trying to make it clear that masks are to be worn practically at all times by students in school, drawing complaints that school leaders must again change their preparations.
The administration this week released additional guidance that Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said Tuesday clarifies the state's intentions for mask-wearing in schools as they prepare to reopen in the coming days and weeks.
Masks must be worn in school, even when students and educators are six feet apart, Levine said.
“We have had questions about it and we’ve had enough questions that we wanted to clarify," Levine said at a news conference. “That we mean that when the young people are wearing masks, that they are wearing masks that they are in their classroom even though they're six feet apart, they should be wearing their masks.”
But with some private or career technical schools already open, school officials say it is another frustrating change in guidance. They say they had previously been told that students and educators could remove their masks in the classrooms if they were at least six feet apart and sitting at desks.
“We all understand this is a fluid situation, things change as the virus continues its path,” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. "But the sand shifting beneath the feet of school leaders makes it frustrating to deal with. ... It’s hard to make plans when things change on a weekly basis.”
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association said they had been told that the state's updated its guidance reflects new guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which endorsed the universal use of cloth face coverings by children as young as two years old and educators in school, child care and other group settings.
The Department of Education, in advising school districts of the change Monday, acknowledged it had told school officials previously that students could remove face coverings “as long as six feet of social distancing could be maintained.”
DiRocco said it's going to be a much more difficult task to ensure that students have a mask on their face throughout the day in a classroom setting, particularly in younger children through third grade.
“That’s just a lot to ask of them,” DiRocco said.
Levine, however, pointed to an expanded masking order issued July 1, which applies to all public and private schools and children two and older, the administration's updated guidance said.
Exceptions to that are when students are six feet apart and eating or drinking or taking brief breaks, or when wearing a face-covering is unsafe to operate equipment or carry out a task.
A face-covering means covering the nose and mouth, and must be secured to the head with ties, straps or loops over the ears, or wrapped around the lower face, the guidance says.
Coverings can be made of various synthetic or natural fabrics, including cotton, silk or linen, and can include a plastic face shield that covers the nose and mouth, the guidance says.