Pennsylvania high court throws out mask mandate for schools

Pennsylvania schoolchildren may soon be attending classes unmasked under a state Supreme Court ruling throwing out the Wolf administration’s statewide mandate.

Julian Aldridge wears a face mask while sitting at a desk behind a see-through partition

A student wearing a mask does school work behind see-though partitions. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Pennsylvania schoolchildren may soon be attending classes unmasked under a state Supreme Court ruling Friday that threw out the Wolf administration’s statewide mandate that face coverings be worn inside K-12 school buildings.

The justices announced the decision but have not yet issued a written opinion that explains their reasoning.

They ruled that the masking mandate, which also applies to child care facilities, is not valid because it was imposed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s acting health secretary without legal authorization. The practical impact of the decision will depend on which schools and school districts impose their own masking requirements.

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The justices upheld a lower-court ruling that Alison Beam, the acting state health secretary, lacked authority to require masks, did not follow state laws about enacting regulations and acted without a required existing disaster emergency declared by the governor in place.

The decision comes just two days after the high court heard oral arguments in the challenge filed by the Senate’s highest-ranking Republican leader and others.

The lower-court found Pennsylvania’s disease control law does not give health secretaries “the blanket authority to create new rules and regulations out of whole cloth, provided they are related in some way to the control of disease or can otherwise be characterized as disease control measures.”

Wolf’s press secretary, Beth Rementer, offered no immediate comment. A message seeking comment was left for Thomas W. King III, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

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The lawsuit was filed by Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre; state Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford; two religious schools; three public school districts; and several parents of schoolchildren.

Beam’s actions, the litigants argued, left the public unable to voice their opinions and the General Assembly unable to review the policy’s legality or necessity, and violated state law.

The attorney general’s office, representing Beam, told the court earlier this week there does not appear to be anything to prevent schools and school districts from issuing their own masking orders.

The mask mandate took effect in early September. Wolf announced in November he intends to return authority over masking decisions to local school districts in January, but will continue to require masks in child care centers and early learning programs.

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