Mask requirement starts Sept. 7 in Pennsylvania schools

Staff reports

Masks will be required in all Pennsylvania K-12 schools, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Tuesday, Aug. 31, reversing course amid a statewide COVID-19 resurgence that is filling hospital beds just as students return to class.

The Department of Health order will take effect at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 7 — the day after Labor Day — and will require students, teachers and staff to wear masks when inside.

Kindergartner Andrew Feliz and second-grader Ava Feliz wore masks on the first day of school in the Greencastle-Antrim School District on Aug. 19. Beginning Tuesday, Sept. 7, masks will be mandatory at all schools in Pennsylvania under a Pennsylvania Department of Health order announced by Gov. Tom Wolf.

The governor said during a press conference that the “aggressive” delta variant of COVID-19 has “changed everything,” with cases of the contagious strain rising across the country and commonwealth over the past two months. 

“All this is happening while schools are trying to open their doors and start off another year, and it's undermining the hard work of our educators, our teachers and our school staff,” Wolf said.

The numbers

Every county in Pennsylvania, he said, now has high or substantial rates of transmission, making it crucial for students and staff to wear facial coverings on campus.

In Franklin County, 370 new cases were reported in the week that ended Sunday, Aug. 29. That's a 26.7% increase from the 292 new cases in the week that ended Sunday, Aug. 22.

“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. “Doing nothing right now to stop COVID-19 is not an option.”

With the increase in delta variant cases as schools across Pennsylvania reopen for in-person education, medical experts have seen that face-to-face learning can lead to high virus exposure with rapid spread of infection, according to Dr. Trude Haecker, president of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"The result will be more quarantining, causing increasing academic loss and further exacerbation of stress, anxiety and depression in the young people we serve,” said Haecker, who is also a general pediatrician at Children's Hospital Philadelphia. 

“The Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics does not make rescue recommendations lightly,” she said.

As of Aug. 31, there were 24 positive cases among students in the Greencastle-Antrim School District and 244 students — 9% of the district's enrollment — were in quarantine. Possible school-related transmission was 0.1%.

G-A schools opened with masks optional, but highly recommended under the district's health and safety plan. Dr. Lura Hanks, superintendent, reported that about 30% of G-A's 3,000 students wore masks on the first day of school.

Dr. Lura Hanks, superintendent of the Greencastle-Antrim School District, showed this slide about masking at the Aug. 19 school board meeting.

Acting state Health Secretary Alison Beam shared that between mid-July and Aug. 28, COVID-19 cases among Pennsylvania children up to 17 years old rose by 277% — a nearly 300% jump in a six-week period. 

“In July, we were seeing fewer than 300 new cases of COVID per day across the state,” Beam said. “Now, we are seeing more than 3,000 cases per day.”

The order

The universal masking order that goes into effect next week applies indoors for all K-12 school buildings.

The order will also apply to brick and mortar or cyber charter schools, private schools, career and technological centers, intermediate units, Pre-K Counts programs, Headstart programs or preschool early intervention programs, private academic nursery schools and locally funded pre-kindergarten activities and childcare providers licensed by the Department of Human Services.

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Under the order, everyone working in, attending or visiting a school entity will be required to wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status.

Beam said while it's clear there will be objections to the mandate, the leaders involved with making the decision ask people to keep it in perspective with the pandemic's impact last school year.

"Last year when there was this level of community transmission, our students were learning virtually," Beam said.

"The guidance has evolved based on lessons learned, (and) our goal is to keep students in classrooms and keep the surging Delta variant out," she said.

Less than a month ago, Wolf had ruled out a statewide mask mandate for schools after requiring them last year. The highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus has changed the administration’s calculus about what is needed to keep students in class.

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 across the state have been the scene of debate.

Those who have spoken out against wearing masks have cited health and breathing problems among their children.

People against masking children have also argued that their early development can be impacted, denying them the opportunity to pick up on verbal or facial cues from others.

They also say they have the right to decide what is best for their children.

When asked how the new mask mandate would be enforced, Wolf said the decision-making and enforcement lies in the hands of the parents and school boards.

“They're the ones that are overseeing the enforcement of this, and in the end, what we all want is what they want, and that is to keep our kids in school, to keep sports being played,” he said. “Those are the things we can't do if we don't do something like this.”

Reactions

The Pennsylvania State Education Association announced its support of the Wolf administration’s order.

“This isn’t a choice between masking or not masking, 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,” said PSEA president Rich Askey in a statement.

State Rep. Paul Schemel, a Republican whose district includes Greencastle and Antrim Township said Wolf failed to recognize that Pennsylvania is poorly served by a “one-size-fits-all” approach to limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Rep. Paul Schemel

“The governor’s announcement comes as the pace of hospitalizations and deaths is slowing statewide, and the new universal mandate fails to take into account that Pennsylvania continues to have select ‘hotspots’ of spread," Schemel said. "Decisions about local schools should be made by local school boards, who are better able to respond to local conditions as they develop. It is a strategic mistake for the governor to take decision-making power out of their hands."

“Every day I hear from parents who are concerned about masking and the long-term effects on learning and their children’s health," said state Sen. Judy Ward, a Republican who also represents Greencastle and Antrim Township. "Parents have the fundamental right to make health and educational decisions that are best suited for their children. The circumstances and issues in each of those local communities should drive the decisions there, not a statewide mandate.

Sen. Judy Ward

“Decisions were made to send children back to brick-and-mortar schools based upon local school district masking policies. The Wolf administration previously said it would leave masking decisions up to school districts but now that school has started, the Wolf administration is changing the rules," Ward said. "School districts have worked hard to come up with their own COVID-19 mitigation strategies — some including optional masking, and some with required masking.  Parents in my district are very upset with this change in plans impacting their children."

Shawn Hardy of the Greencastle Echo Pilot, Ashley R. Williams of the Bucks County Courier Times and the Associated Press contributed to this report.