A new statewide mask mandate takes effect this week, so when Pennsylvania K-12 students and staff return to the classroom, face coverings should be part of the dress code.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and acting Health Secretary Alison Beam announced an order Tuesday that requires students, teachers, and staff at public schools, private schools, and childcare facilities to mask up indoors.
The mandate, which follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, came as families sent their children back to school for in-person instruction amid rising COVID-19 cases.
“Unfortunately, we are already seeing evidence that students in schools where masks are optional are suffering the consequences of not following the public health recommendations from the CDC,” Beam told reporters last Tuesday. “Just last Friday, the lights were off, and football fields were empty at Pleasant Valley School District in the northeast, Panther Valley School District in the Lehigh Valley, Annville-Cleona School District in Lebanon County, and Eastern Lancaster County because of COVID-19 cases at Susquenita High School’s team.”
Four high schools in western Pennsylvania canceled football games last week due to coronavirus cases among students. In Lawrence County, the New Castle Area School District band, flag line, and dance line stayed in quarantine for the season opener.
Since schools reopened in August, state data reports more than 5,000 students tested positive for the coronavirus. As of Friday, 65 Pennsylvania counties show a high virus transmission rate, according to the CDC.
Following the order’s announcement, more than a dozen medical and education entities issued statements supporting the decision, saying it’s the best way to keep schools open and students and teachers safe.
“The science is clear,” Wolf said. “The Delta variant is highly transmissible and dangerous to the unvaccinated, many of whom are children too young to receive the vaccine.”
Here’s what to know about the latest mask mandate in Pennsylvania:
When does the mandate begin?
The order takes effect Tuesday, Sept. 7, the first day of school after Labor Day weekend.
Who enacted the mask mandate?
Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature have argued the health secretary’s powers are tied to an active disaster declaration. But Beam’s role was unaffected by the constitutional changes approved by voters in May that curtailed the governor’s emergency powers and expanded the Legislature’s role in disaster response.
Who does the order apply to?
The order applies to everyone over the age of 2 — regardless of their vaccination status — indoors at K-12 public schools, including brick-and-mortar and cyber-charter schools, private and religious schools, career and technical centers, intermediate units, and early childhood education facilities.
Are there exceptions?
Yes. However, “all alternatives to a face covering, including the use of a face shield should be exhausted before an individual is excepted,” according to the order.
Similar to previous mandates, this order allows for “reasonable accommodations” for individuals with a medical or mental health condition, or disability, that prevents them from wearing a mask.
The mandate also allows for exceptions in situations where wearing a face covering would create an “unsafe condition” as determined by local, state, or federal regulators or workplace safety guidelines.
People who are working alone and isolated from in-person interactions may remove their face covering. The mandate also allows for breaks during lunch and drink breaks. It also does not apply when participating in high-intensity activities and sports.
When does the order end?
There is no definitive expiration date for the order. But the Wolf administration plans to review the mandate during the first week of October.
Who is responsible for enforcement?
“School districts are constantly in the business of enforcing policies that keep schools safe for learning for our students,” state Education Secretary Noe Ortega said last week. “Throughout the pandemic, it’s been our recommendation to a number of school leaders, particularly those at the building, to make sure that that’s the enforcement measures that they begin to use with regards to getting students to comply.”
Incentives — “continued, sustained learning in the classroom” — help with compliance, Ortega added.
According to the order, schools should display signage throughout buildings and classrooms to remind students, staff, and teachers about the universal masking policy. Districts must accommodate individuals who state they have a medical or mental health condition or disability that prevents them from wearing a face covering.
What happens if a school does not comply?
School officials who fail to follow and enforce the order could lose “the protection of sovereign immunity,” meaning that they may personally face lawsuits from families affected by any attempt to ignore the mandate.
“Parents can submit complaints about noncompliance with the masking order to the school principal or building administrator,” Maggi Barton, a Health Department spokesperson, told the Capital-Star in an email. “If it is a building or district-wide issue, parents should contact the central district’s office administration – then superintendent – and then to [the] school board.”
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