Reversing course, Wolf imposes mask mandate for Pa. schools, childcare facilities

Kindergarten students at Powel Elementary school line up to enter their schoo

Kindergarten students at Powel Elementary school line up to enter their school on the first day of classes, Aug. 31, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Reversing course as COVID cases rise, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday his administration will impose an indoor mask mandate for all K-12 schools and child care facilities.

Students and staff will be required to wear masks regardless of vaccination starting on September 7. The order applies to public and private schools.

Assuming the mandate takes effect without legal interjection, Pennsylvania will join Delaware, New Jersey, and twelve other states that already require masks in schools, according to a USA Today tracker.

Pennsylvania’s mandate will not apply to student-athletes while they’re playing sports.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends mask-wearing in schools and the state’s two teachers unions had pushed for a mandate.

Earlier this summer, Wolf said masking decisions should be left to districts. He then called on the legislature to reconvene and pass a mask mandate. It seemed to be a tacit admission that his emergency powers — which were recently restrained by voters — prevented him from acting alone. Legislative leaders denied Wolf’s request.

Then, on Tuesday, Wolf announced that the state’s Disease Prevention and Control Law gave Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam the authority to enact a mask requirement.

Wolf said Tuesday his administration always had the authority to impose a masking requirement in schools, but that he was trying to be “collegial” by first soliciting the support of legislators.

“Doing nothing right now to stop COVID-19, that’s just not an option,” said Wolf, who claimed more than half of Pennsylvania’s 500 traditional school districts do not have a masking requirement.

“This is where we are right now,” said Wolf. “I’m the one left holding the bag. I’m the one who has to make the decision.”

GOP leaders were quick to condemn the move.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) called Wolf’s move “government overreach.”

“Throughout the summer, Governor Wolf and Acting Health Secretary Beam were adamant about allowing these decisions to be made at the local level based on the best available data,” said Corman. “It is completely disingenuous for him to flip-flop now when he didn’t like the choices school districts made.”

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre) said his caucus will take a “serious look at potential legislative changes that address this administration’s misuse of current law.”

Wolf’s move comes as the delta variant drives new COVID cases in the Commonwealth.

Pennsylvania is now averaging more than 3,200 new, confirmed infections daily — 20 times the number of cases it was reporting on a typical day in early July. More than 1,700 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, up sevenfold since last month. Deaths have doubled in two weeks to about 20 per day.

“The reality we are living now is extremely different than just one month ago,” said Beam on Tuesday.

Of the 1.3 million documented cases of COVID in Pennsylvania since the start of the pandemic, 15% have been in those ages 0-19.

About two-thirds of Pennsylvania adults are fully vaccinated. Most students, however, are not yet eligible for vaccination.

As many districts fully reopen for the first time in nearly 18 months, rules around masking have taken center stage and continued to take an overtly partisan tone.

In the Central Bucks Schools District — Southeast Pennsylvania’s second-largest district — the board’s rejection of a mask mandate has triggered a lawsuit from parents. Last week, a federal judge ordered the North Allegheny School District and its board to require face coverings for students, staff and visitors, siding with a group of parents in the Pittsburgh suburbs who had sued.

Opponents of masking mandates say they violate parental prerogative and question their effectiveness, pointing to nations, such as Great Britain, that don’t require masks in schools.

Proponents say they’re crucial to keeping schools safe through the current surge, especially because vaccines aren’t yet approved for children under 12. The CDC says modeling suggests masks continue to provide important protection as the nation’s vaccination campaign continues.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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