Facemasks will once again become required attire inside Pennsylvania schools.

During a virtual press conference Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that the state Department of Health is issuing an order mandating that all students and staff must wear masks inside school buildings starting Sept. 7. The mandate applies to all public and private schools, as well as child care centers and early learning centers.

“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, calling COVID-19 an unacceptable threat to schools.

“Doing nothing right now to stop COVID-19, that’s just not an option,” he said.

The mask mandate news comes as schools across the state are opening for a new school year. In Berks County, all 18 public school districts had begun the 2021-22 year as of Monday.

Two-thirds of Berks districts had already enacted some form of mask requirement for at least some students and staff prior to the governor’s announcement.

A worsening situation

The governor said Tuesday’s announcement was based on a worsening of the pandemic in the state, fueled by the ultra-contagious delta variant.

“As everyone knows, we are not where we were two months ago,” he said. “The delta variant has changed everything for us.”

Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam put that comment into context, sharing data comparing the COVID situation in the state today to mid-July.

Back then the state was seeing less than 300 new cases per day, she said. Now that number is 3,000-plus.

Alison Beam, acting state health secretary, during a press conference Tuesday in Harrisburg reinstating a mask mandate for public schools, child care centers and early learning centers.

Hospitalizations for COVID are up from 245 to 1,850. Daily deaths have doubled from 10 to the 21 reported Tuesday.

And, most concerning, the number of COVID cases in people ages birth to 17 have increased by 227%, Beam said. Nearly half of those kids aren’t eligible to be vaccinated.

“These are alarming facts,” Beam said.

Despite the worsening numbers — which Wolf was quick to point out have been muted by the state’s success in getting people vaccinated at higher rates than many other states — Wolf and his administration have maintained how important it is for students to be able to learn in-person this school year.

“We need our students to be in the classroom,” he said, adding that across the nation there are several examples of students already being forced to isolate because of COVID outbreaks. “Our students deserve better than that.”

With students younger than 12 unable to receive one of the three approved COVID-19 vaccines, Wolf said, masking is needed to keep schools open.

“Wearing a mask in school is necessary,” he said.

Why now?

Masks were mandated inside schools last school year by a statewide order requiring them inside all public spaces. But up until Tuesday the state had been taking a hands-off approach to requiring them this school year.

Wolf admitted that it could be argued that Tuesday’s announcement was past due. But that’s not because his administration was dragging its feet, he said.

The governor said he initially tried to rely on local districts making the correct choice on their own, urging school leaders to follow updated U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that recommends universal mask-wearing in schools. His hope was that local school boards would enact their own masking requirements.

“More than half have not,” Wolf said.

The failure of so many of the state’s 500 school districts to install mask mandates of their own led Wolf to reach out to the state Legislature last week.

Wolf sent a letter to the Republican legislative leadership asking for the General Assembly to take action and issue a mask mandate for schools. That request was denied.

“So it was left to me,” Wolf said.

Beam said that over the last month, as Wolf pursued different methods of trying to get schools to require masks, it has become more clear how necessary they are.

“The reality we are living in now is extremely different that just a month ago,” she said.

The delta variant, which now accounts for 98% of new COVID cases in the state, has worsened the pandemic across the nation. And that impact hasn’t spared children.

Beam said a recent media analysis showed that up to 90,000 students across the nation have already had to quarantine during the first few weeks of the new school year. And, she said, last week there were 1,400 pediatric patients hospitalized with COVID across the U.S.

In Pennsylvania, Beam said, there have already been 5,000 students to test positive for COVID.

Saying she knows there will likely be pushback to the new mandate, Beam said she hopes people keep things in perspective.

“Our goal is to keep kids in classrooms and the surging delta variant out,” she said.

Pushback

Wolf, asked by multiple media members how he will handle the backlash the new mask mandate will certainly face, seemed dumbfounded.

“I’m not sure why there’s pushback on this,” he said. “If we don’t do this, where does that leave us?”

Wolf said that every parent in Pennsylvania should be happy to hear about the new requirement, asking how they would feel if masks weren’t worn and their kid got sick or had their school closed down.

“I think about the world if we don’t do something like this,” he said.

It was unclear whether Wolf’s disbelief about potential angst over a new mandate was genuine or merely for effect.

Mask requirements in schools have faced pushback from parents across the country, including in Pennsylvania districts.

And the governor himself has faced criticism over the past 17 months for his use of various mandates to fight the pandemic — including requiring masks in indoor public spaces and restrictions placed on restaurants.

The pushback on the governor’s use of mandates was so strong that a pair of constitutional amendments were approved by voters in May that curb his powers related to emergency declarations.

Wolf said that those amendments won’t impact the new mask mandate, explaining that the Department of Health has had the power to issue orders regarding public health since the 1920s.

The governor compared the move to the government’s ability to create and implement traffic laws, saying he can’t imagine a state not having those powers.

Republicans in the state Legislature see things differently. The governor’s announcement was met with swift rebukes from across the aisle Tuesday afternoon.

Rep. Barry Jozwiak of Bern Township accused the governor of going back on a promise not to institute any new COVID mandates and stripping local school leaders of their ability to make their own decisions.

“Government intervention should never be the answer to override our local officials and board members, especially since this pandemic continues to affect our counties differently,” he said. “This is another example of the governor continuing to flip-flop on critical issues that affect our commonwealth as a whole. My colleagues and I will do everything in our capacity to fight this extreme government overreach.”

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, a Westmoreland County Republican, likewise said fighting the pandemic should be personal and a local decision.

“Immediately surrendering to emotion is a sweeping and restrictive measure that will result in government control of our daily lives,” she said. “While I believe Gov. Wolf’s efforts are well intended, his approach is not based on data nor does it consider the demographics, geography and cultures across the commonwealth.”

Ward also pointed to the two recently-passed amendments, saying the people of Pennsylvania had voted to limit the executive branch’s “unilateral control” of emergencies.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, a Republican who represents parts of Centre and Mifflin counties, said Wolf “turned a deaf ear” to the people of Pennsylvania.

“After months of telling Pennsylvanians that mitigation orders are a thing of the past, the Wolf administration once again went back on its word and issued another ill-advised statewide mandate that deprives Pennsylvania communities of local control and community self-determination in public health decisions,” he said.

Voices of support

Wolf’s announcement came the day after a group of nearly 50 education and health organizations sent a letter to members of the administration and legislative leaders urging a mask mandate for schools.

And other groups, including the largest statewide teachers union, have previously pushed for a mask requirement.

Several of those groups, issued statements of support following Tuesday’s announcement.

“This isn’t a choice between masking or not masking,” Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said. “It is a choice between keeping schools open for in-person learning or forcing far too many students to learn from the other side of a screen.”

Askey said PSEA is in full support of the new mask mandate, arguing that it is a key piece to keeping schools open.

“Months ago, PSEA said a full, safe return to in-person instruction should be our top priority for the 2021-22 school year,” he said. “Masking up in our schools is a simple, proven way to help make that a reality.”

Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center, likewise lauded the decision to issue a statewide mask mandate.

“We believe that today’s directive requiring schools to mandate masks is essential to ensuring the health and safety of all our students, teachers, parents, school staff and communities,” she said.

Arthur G. Steinberg, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said a statewide mask mandate was something that had to be put in place to keep children and adults safe.

“It is with a great sense of relief that we announce our support of Gov. Wolf’s mask mandate for all who enter public schools and childcare centers in Pennsylvania, regardless of their vaccination status,” he said. “Given that our youngest students, those under the age of 12, are not yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and the apparent rise of hospitalizations of children due to the delta variant, the next best thing to protect them, their families and their teachers is to wear a mask.”

Exceptions

The mask mandate has eight exceptions for students or staff. They are:

  • If wearing a face covering while working would create an unsafe condition in which to operate equipment or execute a task as determined by local, state, or federal regulators or workplace safety guidelines.
  • If wearing a face covering would either cause a medical condition, or exacerbate an existing one, including respiratory issues that impede breathing, a mental health condition or a disability.
  • When necessary to confirm the individual’s identity.
  • When working alone and isolated from interaction with other people with little or no expectation of in-person interaction.
  • If an individual is communicating or seeking to communicate with someone who is hearing-impaired or has another disability, where the ability to see the mouth is essential for communication.
  • When the individual is under 2 years old.
  • When an individual is engaged in an activity that cannot be performed while wearing a mask, such as eating and drinking, or playing an instrument that would be obstructed by the face covering or when participating in high intensity aerobic or anerobic activities including during a physical education class in a well-ventilated location and able to maintain a physical distance of six feet from all other individuals.
  • When a child or student is participating in a sports practice activity or event, whether indoors or outdoors.

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