Pa. Republican lawmakers chime in on debate over K-12 school mask mandates

‘We are firm believers that local control is best, and part of local control is making decisions based on what parents and students of the district want and need — not what the teachers’ union wants,’ a group of eight lawmakers wrote.

By: - August 25, 2021 8:38 am

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As Pennsylvania educators prepared to welcome students back to the classroom — and keep them learning in person for as long as possible — a group of state lawmakers joined the mask-wearing debate.

Gov. Tom Wolf and acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam have no plans for another statewide mask mandate, leaving the decision to local districts. Following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, dozens of Pennsylvania schools have opted to require universal indoor masking, regardless of vaccination status.

In a Monday letter to school superintendents and board presidents, eight legislative Republicans urged districts in Adams, Blair, Cumberland, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon, and York counties to leave the decision up to families. 

Sens. Mike Regan, R-York, and Judy Ward, R-Blair, and Reps. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland, Torren Ecker, R-Adams, Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, Seth Grove, R-York, Dawn Keffer, R-York, and Barb Gleim, R-Cumberland, signed the document.

“We are firm believers that local control is best, and part of local control is making decisions based on what parents and students of the district want and need — not what the teachers’ union wants,” they wrote. “The parents we have heard from simply want a choice — not a mandate.”

They added that parents are “trying to tell you that a repeat of last year could actually be what proves harmful to their children’s health and well-being — not COVID.”

According to state data, 15 counties report a substantial transmission rate. The remaining 52, which include every county represented by the lawmakers, show a high transmission rate.

Two unions representing Pennsylvania teachers, the Pennsylvania State Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have called on schools to require mandatory masking for students and staff.

“Masking up is essential to keeping in-person learning going all year,” PSEA President Rich Askey said in a statement. “We know that safe in-person instruction is the best setting for students to learn. For that reason, PSEA wants to see every school in the state start the school year in person, continue in person, and finish in person.”

“That will be impossible if schools have to close their doors because of a rapid spread of this virus,” he added.

The Delta variant is highly contagious and could cause more severe illness than previous strains, especially among unvaccinated individuals, according to the CDC.

Although the Departments of State and Education  aren’t formally adopting a policy to mandate mask-wearing or COVID-19 vaccinations for schools, officials endorse CDC guidance, which recommends both. Medical experts also recommend schools maintain at least three feet of distance between students within classrooms to reduce transmission risk and use multi-layered prevention strategies, such as testing.

In Pennsylvania, 266,736 children have contracted the coronavirus. From March 2020 to August 2021, 16 deaths occurred among those aged 15-19, according to data provided by the state Department of Health. 

The state does not track COVID-19 hospitalization by age.

Despite expert recommendations over the last 17 months, the lawmakers said they have heard concerns from constituents about required masking and suggested school staff and students should get to decide for themselves whether to wear a mask, “keeping with the true American spirit.”

Senate Education Committee Chairman Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, questioned the authority of local government and school mask mandates earlier this month, citing a terminated COVID-19 emergency disaster declaration.

But this week, a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order to allow the North Allegheny School District, located outside of Pittsburgh, to reinstate a COVID-19 mask mandate after a group of parents and students sued — meaning that everyone who comes to school must wear a mask.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents doctors who specialize in children’s health, supports universal masking for those older than 2.

“There are many children and others who cannot be vaccinated,” Dr. Sara Bode, chair-person elect of the AAP Council on School Health Executive Committee, said in a statement. “This is why it’s important to use every tool in our toolkit to safeguard children from COVID.”

She added: “Universal masking is one of those tools and has been proven effective in protecting people against other respiratory diseases as well. It’s also the most effective strategy to create consistent messages and expectations among students without the added burden of needing to monitor everyone’s vaccination status.”

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