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School district that shunned mask mandate reverses decision

September 22, 2021 GMT

TAMAQUA, Pa. (AP) — A Pennsylvania school district that openly flouted a statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools has reversed course and said it will require universal masking for students and others inside school buildings.

The Tamaqua Area School Board voted 6-3 on Tuesday night to comply with the masking order from the state Health Department, which requires students, staff and visitors to cover their faces while indoors.

Pennsylvania school districts had largely followed the masking order, even as some exploited an apparent loophole that made it easier for parents to request medical exemptions for their children. But Tamaqua had opted to make masks optional, drawing the ire of state officials.

Noe Ortega, the state education secretary, accused Tamaqua of “flagrantly violating” the order and warned of various consequences if Tamaqua board members did not require students and others be masked. He said in a Sept. 8 letter to Tamaqua board members that they could face fines, civil lawsuits, canceled liability insurance policies and even referral to federal civil rights enforcers.

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At the Tamaqua board meeting Tuesday night, board President Larry Wittig called Ortega’s letter “toothless” and said he wasn’t worried about litigation. He asked people to trust the board’s decision and said “there is more to it than the threats in that letter.”

After the vote, the Tamaqua superintendent said universal masking would begin Oct. 4. He said an exemption form was under development and would be available by Friday.