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Pennsylvania mandates masks in schools and day cares amid COVID case surge

HARRISBURG, Pa. — 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, regardless of vaccination status, the Wolf administration said.

The order will not apply to student athletes while they’re playing, nor to 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.

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.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf insists the mask mandate will “keep our children in the classroom.”
Christopher Dolan/The Times-Tribune via AP

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.

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.

Parents protest a mask policy during the North Allegheny School District school board meeting at North Allegheny Senior High School in McCandless, Pennsylvania on August 25, 2021.
Parents protest a mask policy during the North Allegheny School District school board meeting in McCandless, Pa., on Aug. 25, 2021.
Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP

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.

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