HARRISBURG (AP) — Masks will be required in all Pennsylvania public and private schools, as well as child care facilities, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Tuesday, reversing course amid a statewide COVID-19 resurgence that is filling hospital beds and infecting more young people just as students return to class.
The Department of Health order will take effect Tuesday, Sept. 7 — a week or more after the start of school in many districts — and will require students, teachers, and staff to wear face coverings when inside, regardless of vaccination status, the Wolf administration said.
The Democratic governor said a universal, statewide order was necessary after most of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts did not impose their own mask mandates. State health officials said more than 5,000 students have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the academic year.
“It’s crucial for students and staff to wear masks in school. This is a necessary step to keep our students and teachers safe and in the classroom, where they all need to be and where we want them all to be,” Wolf said at a news conference.
He said the masking order would be reevaluated in early October.
Less than a month ago, Wolf had ruled out a statewide mask mandate for schools after requiring them last year. But the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, which is driving nearly all new infections in the state, has changed the administration’s calculus about what is needed to keep students in class.
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. Some 1,850 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, up more than sevenfold since last month. Deaths have doubled in two weeks to about 20 per day.
Most troubling, Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said Tuesday, is an explosive rise in the number of children testing positive — up nearly 300% in six weeks. She said nearly half of those pediatric infections were in children under 12, too young to be vaccinated.
“The reality that we are living in now is extremely different than it was just one month ago,” Beam said.
The Wolf administration outlined several limited exceptions to the mandate. A mask doesn’t have to be worn if it would cause or worsen a medical condition, or if it would make a task unsafe. Student-athletes don’t have to wear one while they’re playing, officials said.
Wolf took action after a month in which the masking of children was the focus of intense debate at school board meetings around the state. Some parents argued masks are necessary to help tamp down spread and keep schools open for in-person learning. Others contended they make it hard for their children to breathe and are tantamount to child abuse.
Stephen Pirritano, president of the Neshaminy School Board outside Philadelphia, said he preferred local control of that decision. But he said that if Wolf was intent on a statewide mandate, the governor should have acted sooner.
“This shouldn’t be a war about how we get these kids educated,” Pirritano said. “I wouldn’t want to sit in a class all day with my face covered. But if there are conditions that say we’ve got to do it, then we’ve got to do it.”
Teachers unions, Democrats, progressive groups, and others all said they supported Wolf’s decision. Republicans in the GOP-controlled General Assembly, who had fought Wolf over earlier pandemic restrictions, deplored it and threatened a legislative response.
“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. It is completely disingenuous for him to flip-flop now when he didn’t like the choices school districts made,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre.
Corman contended Beam lacked legal authority to issue a universal mask mandate. Beam said she has that power under various statutes, including the Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955.
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association said the decision on masking should have been left to local school officials. But the group said it would nevertheless remind school districts “of their legal obligation related to the directive.”
The Democratic governor took action after the Republican leaders of the House and Senate rejected his request last week 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.
A group of Republican legislators encouraged their school districts to defy Wolf’s order. The administration warned that officials who do not enforce the mask mandate could face legal liability.
The masking issue had already generated a raft of litigation just days into the new school year.
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. On Monday, another federal judge rejected a similar request made by parents in the Canon-McMillan School District, also in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Parents of special needs children sued the Central Bucks School District outside Philadelphia over its refusal to mandate masks. That case was pending when word of the impending statewide mandate emerged.
Some schools 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.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks in schools for students, staff, and teachers.