The Lead

Despite a request from Gov. Wolf, GOP lawmakers won’t mandate masks in K-12 schools

By: - August 26, 2021 12:48 pm

Pa. House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, speaks at a Capitol news conference on April, 17, 2019. (Capital-Star file photo)

The Republican-controlled Legislature won’t be coming back to Harrisburg to mandate masks in K-12 schools.

House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, have denied Gov. Tom Wolf’s request for the General Assembly to reconvene and immediately pass legislation to require mask-wearing in public schools and child care centers.

“We believe that the current approach — allowing local officials to manage and respond as needed — makes the most sense and should be continued,” Cutler and Corman wrote in a letter delivered to Wolf on Thursday. 

Earlier this month, Wolf and acting state Health Secretary Alison Beam said they had no plans for another statewide mask mandate. Instead, they endorsed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends universal masking indoors, regardless of someone’s vaccination status.

But the governor’s request came as kids and teachers returned to in-person learning amid a rise in COVID-19 cases. On Thursday, the Department of Health reported 3,333 additional positive cases, bringing the statewide total to 1,284,532.

All of Pennsylvania’s counties are either showing a substantial or high transmission rate for the coronavirus.

In their letter to Wolf, Cutler and Corman said they’re also disappointed in the rise in cases, “especially given the advances and availability of vaccines and other treatment protocols and mitigation options.”

When making decisions about mask mandates and vaccine requirements, local communities have faced contentious meetings and pushback from residents. During a school board meeting earlier this month, a man gave a Nazi salute just after the Fox Chapel Area School District board of directors in Allegheny County unanimously approved a health and safety plan that included a universal mask mandate.

“At this late date, in many of our communities, local leaders have already made important decisions they believe are in the best interest of their residents and are prepared to adjust those decisions as challenges evolve,” they wrote.

Instead of making an early return to Harrisburg, the lawmakers asked for more concise data to show who is most affected by the coronavirus.

“It is our understanding the overwhelming majority of the hospitalized patients in Pennsylvania are unvaccinated individuals, which according to the CDC recommendations should already be wearing a mask,” they wrote.

Pandemic response, especially masking requirements, has been a politically charged topic since the pandemic began in March 2020. The debate even prompted the GOP-controlled Legislature to put two constitutional amendments on the May primary ballot, which curtailed the governor’s emergency powers.

Earlier this week, a group of eight legislative Republicans sent letters to superintendents and board presidents in their districts, asking them to make mask-wearing optional for the 2021-22 academic year. The letter, they said, was prompted by constituents concerned about mask-wearing in school.

To date, there has been no evidence to show that wearing a mask, especially in a school setting, impairs learning or results in poor communication, Beam testified during a Senate Education Committee hearing this month.

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