Pa. health officials are leaving mask mandates up to K-12 schools. A Senate committee has questions

Families, many with young children, were in the audience, holding anti-mask and anti-vaccine mandate signs.

By: - August 6, 2021 5:24 pm

Department of Health Acting Secretary Alison Beam speaks at a press conference. Harrisburg, PA – February 17, 2021

Pennsylvania students and teachers will return to the classroom in a few weeks, and there are no plans for another statewide mask mandate. But that didn’t stop Senate lawmakers from railing against masking recommendations for K-12 schools.

Acting Health Secretary of Health Alison Beam, Education Secretary Noe Ortega, and acting Deputy Education Secretary Sherri Smith testified during a crowded Senate Education Committee hearing on Friday, outlining recommended COVID-19 health and safety guidelines for local districts.

Families, many with young children, were in the audience, holding anti-mask and anti-vaccine mandate signs. Attendees often booed when the officials cited scientific studies and fact-based recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While it still supports a return to in-person learning, the CDC updated its guidance to recommend universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status due to the delta variant.

Pennsylvania health experts and state educators support that recommendation. During a Friday press conference in Philadelphia, Gov. Tom Wolf reiterated that it’s up to Pennsylvania school districts to decide on mandates.

“They’re not mandating it, and neither am I,” he told reporters.

These mandates fall under the purview of local school boards and school administrators, the state officials said.

“At this time, we support a universal masking requirement in K-12 settings as a critical layer to facilitating safe, full-time, in-person learning,” Beam said.

She added: “We’re asking the school districts to actually implement these recommendations, but at this time, there is not a plan to mandate the masking requirement in schools because decisions of such magnitude are not made in a pure public health vacuum.”

To date, Pennsylvania has reported 1,233,876 COVID-19 cases, according to state data. Of those, an estimated 12 percent are among people 18 and younger, Beam said. There are 1.9 million students enrolled in Pennsylvania schools, according to the Department of Education.

Fourteen deaths have occurred among those ages 15-19, and as schools contemplate in-person instruction, which the state Health Department supports, there’s a chance transmission will increase among K-12 students, Beam said.

Citing potential school mandates in Allegheny and Philadelphia counties, Senate Education Committee Chairman Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, questioned the testifiers on the legality of local mandates. Without an active COVID-19 emergency declaration, the senator expressed doubts over enforceability.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly terminated Wolf’s COVID-19 disaster declaration, following an approved constitutional change in the May primary election. 

Republican lawmakers also introduced a bill that would prohibit vaccine passports, though none are planned. Wolf vetoed the bill after it was amended to curtail the state health secretary’s emergency response powers. So, Republicans announced plans for a proposed constitutional amendment with the same proposed language.

The Legislature’s actions have put the Department of Health “in a difficult spot,” Beam said. She added that potential retaliation from the General Assembly will make any requirements “extremely difficult” to implement in school settings. 

“Respectfully, I would ask how do you and your colleagues in the Legislature anticipate protecting students, and teachers, and the tireless volunteers that are actually educating our students to make sure that we can preserve the in-person education?” Beam asked.

Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, replied: “Well, what I would say is that the parents need to be able to make the choice. They know better than you or anyone else.”

This comment was met with cheers from the crowd.

Mastriano and Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, who’s a former nurse, announced plans for legislation that would let parents and guardians opt-out of school mask mandates. 

The planned legislation would require schools to develop a form to opt-out of any potential mandates. It would also state that kids are not isolated, separated from classmates, or left out of school activities.

Statewide mask mandates have come with exemptions for medical reasons or disabilities. In schools, there have also been exceptions for students with respiratory conditions and for athletic programs. To date, Beam said there has been no evidence to show that wearing a mask, especially in a school setting, impairs learning or results in poor communication.

As families and educators prepare for the 2021-22 school year, Smith said the Department of Education’s No. 1 priority is keeping students in the classroom and creating a sense of normalcy after more than a year of mixed learning models and guidelines. She and Ortega also made clear that no education funding is tied to masking or vaccine guidelines.

Schools are only required to have a publicly accessible health and safety plan.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that we address the gaps that occurred from learning from this past 16 months, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Ortega said.

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