HARRISBURG, Pa. - Masks will be required in all Pennsylvania public and private schools, as well as child care facilities beginning Tuesday, after Gov. Tom Wolf announced the commonwealth was reversing course amid a statewide COVID-19 resurgence that was filling hospital beds just as students returned to class.
The Department of Health order, which was announced last week, officially takes effect Tuesday, Sept. 7 — a week or more after the start of school in many districts. The order requires students, teachers, and staff to wear masks when inside, the Wolf administration said.
The order will not apply to student-athletes while they're playing, nor outdoor activities.
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association said that the decision on masking should have been left to local school officials, but that it would nevertheless remind school districts "of their legal obligation related to the directive."
"Our members remain committed to the health and safety of their students and staff, and while they have welcomed the expertise and guidance of state and federal agencies, they are in the best position to evaluate and promptly respond to the ever-evolving conditions in their own communities," said Nathan Mains, the group's chief executive officer.
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The Democratic governor took action after the Republican leaders of the House and Senate rejected his request to pass legislation requiring masks in classrooms. GOP lawmakers acknowledged that coronavirus cases are again surging across the state but insisted that local leaders were best positioned to respond to the pandemic.
Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, said last week that the 10 school districts he represents have worked up their own plans to mitigate COVID-19. He said the coming statewide mandate makes him "beyond furious."
"If somehow they’re trying to find a way to take this away, that will be a breathtaking example of bureaucratic overreach," said Topper, a senior member of the House Education Committee.
Less than a month before announcing the new mandate, Wolf himself had ruled out a statewide mask mandate for schools after requiring them last year. But the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus has changed the administration’s calculus about what is needed to keep students in class.
At the time of the announcement, Pennsylvania was 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 were hospitalized with COVID-19, up sevenfold from the previous month. Deaths had also doubled in two weeks to about 20 per day.
Pennsylvania’s two statewide teachers unions had urged K-12 schools to require masks in school buildings, citing delta’s threat. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks in schools for students, staff and teachers.
But masking is a highly contentious issue, and school board meetings have been the scene of heated debate as parents argue for and against.
In late August, 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. Likewise, parents of special needs children sued a suburban Philadelphia school board that refused to mandate masks. That case was pending when word of the impending statewide mandate emerged.
Some schools have reimposed mask mandates on their own after starting out the year without them.
The North Schuylkill School District began requiring masks indoors after it was forced to quarantine 60 students. It said only 11 students would have needed to quarantine if masking had been in place.