In change of heart, Wolf admin uses health powers to order K-12 mask mandate in Pa.

The order has already inspired legislative Republicans to once again check his executive powers

By: and - August 31, 2021 1:15 pm

(Getty Images)

Masks will be required for Pennsylvania K-12 students and staff when they return to the classroom next week.

Reversing an earlier decision to leave mask-wearing requirements to local school districts, Gov. Tom Wolf and acting Health Secretary Alison Beam announced a new statewide mask mandate on Tuesday. 

The order, issued by the Department of Health, takes effect Tuesday, Sept. 7, and applies to students, teachers, and staff at public and private schools, as well as childcare facilities.

“The reality we are living in now is much different than it was just a month ago,” Beam said during a press conference. “With case counts increasing, the situation has reached the point that we need to take this action to protect our children, teachers, and staff.”

The order, which will remain in effect until terminated by the Department of Health, applies to everyone 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.

Since students and teachers returned to the classroom for in-person instruction, Beam said more than 5,000 kids have tested positive for COVID-19.

The school entities, hundreds of which have not yet issued their own masking orders, are charged with enforcing the order. Like previous mandates, it allows for “reasonable accommodations” for individuals with a medical or mental health condition, or a disability, that prevents them from wearing a mask.

Wolf said his administration will review the mandate in the first week of October.

Tuesday’s announcement comes after a year-long battle over pandemic response, which prompted the Republican-controlled Legislature to advocate for a constitutional change that curtailed the governor’s emergency response powers, and a months-long debate over masking in schools.

With his powers reduced by the voters in the wake of May’s primary election, Wolf, a Democrat, said earlier this month that he had no plans to implement a statewide mask mandate himself. Instead, he said it was up to local districts to decide. 

When asked about imposing any new statewide mask or vaccine mandates by a reporter during an Aug. 10 press conference, Wolf bluntly responded: “No.”

However, the administration ended up issuing the masking order under powers given to Beam by the 1929 law establishing the state Health Department, and a 1955 state law covering infectious disease response.

Even with Wolf’s disaster powers clipped, Pa.’s mask mandate remains. Why?

Those laws were unaffected by the constitutional changes and allowed mask mandates to stay in place. Wolf even vetoed a bill earlier this year that prohibited the health secretary from unilaterally enacting statewide orders, such as Tuesday’s mandate.

Before the order, at least 124 districts had some form of mandatory masking, according to a Capital-Star review of health and safety plans posted to their websites, as required by the federal government. Some local school boards also reconvened to amend their reopening plans to require mask-wearing, citing a rise in community cases.

Districts in most of the state’s largest cities — Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, and Reading — already had mask mandates in effect before Tuesday’s announcement.

One analysis by University of Pennsylvania political science student Gianni Hill found that a majority of Pennsylvania public school students were already covered by some form of a mask mandate.

About six in 10 Americans support mandatory masking in schools, according to a poll commissioned by the Associated Press released this month.

Courts are also beginning to intervene. Last week, a federal judge ordered a suburban Pittsburgh school district to implement masking in response to a lawsuit brought by parents.

However, that hasn’t stopped vocal backlash from mask opponents, who have packed school board meetings to express their displease in increasingly harsh tones.

Just this weekend, one Republican candidate for local office threatened to forcibly remove school board members who voted for mask mandates.

When asked by a reporter if he owes those school board members an apology for not acting sooner, Wolf didn’t answer directly. Instead, he said he tried to work with House and Senate leaders, who declined a request from the governor to reconvene in Harrisburg and enact a mask mandate legislatively.

“Yeah, maybe if we had all run together earlier, it would have been nicer, but that didn’t happen,” he said. “So, I’m moving as quickly as I can.”

In allowing Beam to issue the order, Wolf also faces backlash from the GOP-controlled Legislature. 

During a Senate Education Committee hearing earlier this month, Beam foreshadowed their response, saying a new mask order would put the department “in a difficult spot.” 

Her observation came true within minutes of Wolf’s announcement. In statements, Republican leaders said they once again aimed to check the administration’s powers.

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said that “immediately surrendering to emotion is a sweeping and restrictive measure that will result in government control of our daily lives.”

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, added that his party was “taking a serious look at potential legislative changes that address this administration’s misuse of current law.”

“The administration has turned a deaf ear to the people of Pennsylvania who passed two constitutional amendments in May that sent a clear message that things need to work differently in this state,” Benninghoff said.

For his inaction before Tuesday, Wolf also faced prodding from concerned parents and education advocates.

In a letter sent to the governor Monday, the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center, with a number of grassroots education groups and the state’s two largest teachers unions, argued a mask mandate would protect student health and allow for in-person classes to resume. 

This was particularly critical, the groups argued, for Black students, Latino students, and students with disabilities who have missed out on in-person education over the past year and a half.

“The evidence of the value of in-person learning is compelling, and parents, educators, and state lawmakers have made the reopening of schools a priority,” the letter said. “This goal is unattainable without a mask mandate.”

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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.