Statewide mask mandate for Pennsylvania schools takes effect
A statewide mask mandate for Pennsylvania schools went into effect Tuesday with some school districts in open defiance of the Wolf administration, while GOP leaders in the state House planned to come back to Harrisburg early to mount a legislative response.
The state health secretary’s order that students, staff and visitors at K-12 schools and child care facilities are required to wear masks while indoors, regardless of vaccination status, has provoked outrage from some parents, students and school board members who say the decision should remain local.
Some districts faced anti-mask protests as students returned to class after the long Labor Day weekend. Meanwhile, the Tamaqua Area School Board in Schuylkill County flouted the mask mandate by voting to keep face coverings optional.
Acknowledging a “divide in the community,” the Tamaqua district superintendent, Raymond Kinder, said in a note to parents that “students that choose to wear masks and those who choose not to wear masks should feel comfortable doing so ... I ask that students support each other in their choices and show respect to one another.”
The superintendent of Hamburg Area School District in Berks County said masks would remain optional pending the outcome of a special school board meeting to discuss the statewide mandate. Late Tuesday, the board voted 5-3 to adhere to the Department of Health order and require masks, WFMZ reported.
In central Pennsylvania, the Central York School Board expressed disdain for the mask mandate and said it would give a “ grace period ” for students to come into compliance, even though the statewide order that went into effect Tuesday included no such provision.
The Central York board also noted that parents could apply for a medical exemption to the mandate, declaring, “The governor chose to impose this language and he should be held to it — and that includes the exemptions.”
York County District Attorney Dave Sunday, a Republican, instructed police that they shouldn’t issue criminal citations related to the masking order, nor would his office prosecute violations, based on his office’s legal analysis of the state order.
“At no point should these instructions be interpreted in any fashion as detracting from the seriousness of COVID-19” or “downplaying the personal responsibility that we share towards each other in our community,” he wrote in a memo. He added that harassment, threats or violence “will not be tolerated at any time.”
The masking order says school officials who do not enforce it could face criminal sanctions and civil lawsuits. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the Wolf administration would try to force the issue.
“School officials who fail to adhere to the order could lose the protection of sovereign immunity and may personally face lawsuits from those who may be affected by any official’s attempt to ignore the order,” said Mark O’Neill, a Department of Health spokesperson.
Gov. Tom Wolf changed his stance on masking — that local school officials should decide — amid a surge in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths driven by the highly contagious delta variant. The Democratic governor said last week that a universal, statewide order was necessary after most of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts did not impose their own mask mandates.
House Republicans, who panned the statewide mandate, said Tuesday they would come back into session a week earlier than scheduled to take up mask legislation.
“Over the past week our members have heard from parents, families, and school administrators from across Pennsylvania who are concerned with the Wolf administration’s new statewide mask mandate. Putting forward a legislative response to that mandate is something we are planning to address with the additional session days,” said Jason Gottesman, spokesperson for the House GOP.
He said details were still being worked out.
The mandate is being challenged in court by the Republican leader of the state Senate and a group of parents.
The coronavirus has already forced districts to quarantine students just days and weeks into the new school year. In the Tunkhannock Area School District, in northeastern Pennsylvania, school buildings were shut down Tuesday and students had to learn remotely amid 21 confirmed infections and 27 probable infections.
Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Associated Press reporter Marc Levy in Harrisburg contributed to this report.