The Lead

Beginning in January, Pa. K-12 schools can modify, terminate universal mask mandate

By: and - November 8, 2021 1:21 pm

(Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

(*This story was updated at 1:45 p.m. on Monday, 11/8/21, to include additional comment from the governor’s office and the state Health Department, and at 2:45 p.m. to include comment from Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward and House GOP spokesperson Jason Gottesman.)

Starting in January, Pennsylvania public schools should expect to be able to modify or terminate the state’s universal mask mandate.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, announced on Monday that Pennsylvania public schools — but not early childhood education facilities — will be able to alter or terminate the universal mask mandate, beginning Jan. 17, 2022.

The announcement, which will again leave COVID-19 mitigation politics up to local school boards, comes less than a week after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off on Pfizer’s pediatric COVID-19 vaccine for children 5 and older. 

“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 virus is now a part of our daily lives, but with the knowledge we’ve gained over the past 20 months and critical tools like the vaccine at our disposal, we must take the next step forward in our recovery,” Wolf said in a statement. “With more than 70 percent of adults vaccinated in Pennsylvania and the recently expanded vaccine eligibility, I strongly encourage parents to take safety measures to protect your children and your family — like getting vaccinated.” 

Using powers issued under the 1929 law establishing the Health Department, and a 1955 law on infectious disease control, acting state Health Secretary Alison Beam first issued the order in August as schools reopened for in-person learning amid rising COVID-19 cases. 

The decision came after the Wolf administration asked lawmakers in the Republican-controlled General Assembly to return to Harrisburg and grant legislative authorization of a universal masking mandate. 

Republicans who control the state House and Senate, however, declined the invitation — arguing that school districts and local officials should have discretion over mitigation policies.

“During the announcement, my administration made clear that we would continue to reevaluate the status of the school mask mandate,” Wolf said. “Now, we are in a different place than we were in September, and it is time to prepare for a transition back to a more normal setting.”

The order, which has been in effect since Sept. 7, applies to all students, teachers, and staff at K-12 schools and child care providers, regardless of one’s vaccination status. Early learning programs and child care providers must adhere to the order until further notice, the governor said Monday.

An obscure legislative committee found the order was lawfully issued last month. However, court challenges to the mandate remain.

“We know the mitigation steps we need to implement to keep people safe and keep kids learning in the classroom,” state Education Secretary Noe Ortega said Monday. “School leaders have always made decisions about how to maintain order in schools and ensure that all students have quality learning opportunities.”

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, described the governor’s announcement as “a step in the right direction. She added that the “best approach to protecting the health and safety of Pennsylvanians from COVID-19 is a personal and local decision.”

Jason Gottesman, a House GOP spokesperson, urged Wolf to terminate the mandate immediately.

“Now that a COVID-19 vaccine is available for the vast majority of school-aged children, this ill-advised statewide mask mandate for children should be lifted immediately at all levels, and the previous decisions of local elected officials should be respected unless they wish to change it themselves,” Gottesman said in a statement.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.

Marley Parish

Marley Parish covered the Senate for the Capital-Star.