Wolf stumps for school mask mandate in Norristown visit, downplays critics

Gov. Tom Wolf speaking about the importance of mask mandates in schools, in Norristown, Pa. on September 8, 2021. (Office of Gov. Wolf)

Gov. Tom Wolf speaking about the importance of mask mandates in schools, in Norristown, Pa. on September 8, 2021. (Office of Gov. Wolf)

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and education leaders gathered Wednesday in Norristown to push for mask wearing in schools.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health imposed a mandatory mask policy last week for all k-12 schools and childcare facilities, public and private, effecting September 7.

Wolf had previously said he’d leave masking decisions to local school boards. That changed as the delta variant pushed COVID-19 cases up and most districts planned to keep masks optional.

“Listen, the strategy in Pennsylvania is the vaccine,” said Wolf, “Kids 12 and under cannot get the vaccine, what do you do? We can say we are not going to let them come back into the classroom or we can do everything we can to keep them safe and keep them in the classroom and that’s what we’ve chosen to do.”

Some districts, parents and GOP leaders have said masking should be a local decision, and that the Department of Health, specifically acting secretary Allison Beam, does not have the authority to impose such a mandate. Pa. Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Center) is among a group of parents in the state who have filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the mask mandate.

On Wednesday, Wolf pushed back against the legal claim.

“I’m not a lawyer, but if [Beam] didn’t have the power to do that then I suspect that the Department of Health doesn’t have the power to do all the other things that the Department of Health does to keep people safe,” said Wolf, “like making sure that kitchens are clean, cafeterias are clean, making sure that we follow healthy practices.”

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, said masking is about protecting citizens’ civil rights.

“The most basic of those rights is our students’ right to be safe from this pandemic, and we know what it is,” said Pringle, a Philadelphia native. “I’m a science teacher, I’ve been saying all year, follow the science, follow the science, follow the science.”

Wolf and Secretary of Education Noe Ortega said they have seen mostly “good behavior” and compliance with the mask mandate from districts and parents across the state, downplaying criticism.

Many parents have expressed support for the mandate, emphasizing the collective safety of the community.

But school districts across the state have also said they are already inundated with complaints from parents who prefer mask optional policies.

Some districts — including Central Bucks School District in Bucks County and Souderton Area School District in Montgomery County — are allowing parents to file for mask exemptions without a doctor’s note.

Those exemption policies are making mask proponents feel uneasy, as if their districts are finding loopholes to the mandate.

Prior to the state-wide mandate, Central Bucks parents filed a lawsuit against the district, after the board of education voted for a mask optional policy.

Wolf and Ortega were asked how they have guided schools on the implementation of the mask mandate, especially if a student consistently dismisses the policy.

“What we’ve encouraged all the schools to do is to follow the same protocols when they implement other directives in the classroom,” said Ortega.

Ortega said instead of focusing on repercussions towards districts that do not comply, they are focusing on “incentives.”

“The incentive is that we will continue to allow learning in person in the classrooms for the entire year, which is what our kids want, what our parents want,” said Ortega.

COVID-19 is on the rise in Pennsylvania, averaging more than 3,400 positive cases a day. Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 are also on the rise, averaging over 2,200 people daily. Hospitalizations among children have peaked in recent weeks. Overall, children have accounted for fewer than one-quarter of 1% of all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic.

 

Get more Pennsylvania stories that matter

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal