Statewide masking order in Pa. schools set to end Jan. 17. Why Gov. Tom Wolf announced the change

J.D. Prose
Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau

Pennsylvania’s statewide K-12 school masking order will end on Jan. 17 with local officials left to pursue their own mitigation efforts, Gov. Tom Wolf said Monday.  

Wolf said the order, which went into effect Sept. 7, has served its purpose and the state is in a “different place” with COVID-19 than it was in September.

However, the masking order for early learning programs and child care providers will remain in effect, he said.   

“The school mask order has been critical in ensuring Pennsylvania’s children could safely learn and grow in an in-person classroom setting at the beginning of the school year,” Wolf said in a statement.  

“My administration made clear that we would continue to re-evaluate the status of the school mask mandate,” he said. “Now, we are in a different place than we were in September, and it is time to prepare for a transition back to a more normal setting.” 

Edison Elementary School fourth-grader Fiona Glassman, 9, gets in line to begin the first day of school, Aug. 30, 2021, in Erie. Her mother Amy Shumac said Fiona wore her favorite mask for the occasion.

Wolf also noted in his statement that more than 70% of adults in Pennsylvania are vaccinated against COVID-19 and more children will soon be with the drop in age eligibility.  

Pennsylvania's acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam issued the masking order on Aug. 31, pointing to the easy transmission of the Delta variant and the increased risk to children. At that time, COVID-19 vaccines were only approved for children 12 and older.

On Monday, Beam said in Wolf's statement that state officials are "confident local leaders will take the steps necessary at the local level to preserve in-person education." 

Mask order reaction

The August masking order riled Republicans and anti-mask parents, who have repeatedly insisted that masking requirements should be left to each school district to determine rather than the state. 

Also, the order came too late for many school boards that had been targeted by anti-maskers since the summer for their policies and which were already in place after classes began.

Boards across the state endured raucous meetings filled with shouting and insults, while some ended abruptly when anti-maskers refused to wear masks while inside school buildings. 

When the order was issued, one of the main reasons cited by Wolf was that just 59 school districts of the 474 that submitted health and safety plans to the Pennsylvania Department of Education had mandatory masking policies. 

There are 500 school districts in the state.  

“It is clear that action is needed to ensure children are safe as they return to school,” Wolf said at the time. 

More:Pa. GOP lawmakers wanted to overturn the state's mask mandate in schools. What happened?

Republicans respond

"Today’s decision by Gov. Wolf is a step in the right direction for Pennsylvania as we continue to manage out of crisis and focus our efforts on moving our state’s economy in the right direction,” said Pa. Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward.

“As we have stated from the beginning, the best approach to protecting the health and safety of Pennsylvanians from COVID-19 is a personal and local decision," said state Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, a Westmoreland County Republican.

"Today’s decision by Gov. Wolf is a step in the right direction for Pennsylvania as we continue to manage out of crisis and focus our efforts on moving our state’s economy in the right direction,” she said in a statement.

House Republican Caucus spokesman Jason Gottesman issued a statement in which he castigated Wolf for failing to lift the order sooner.

"Waiting to lift that edict until January — what seems like an arbitrary time in the future — further delays fulfilling that promise," he said 

Gottesman said that before the mask order was issued, local control "was working through contentious, but productive input at the local level," and rescinding the order in January would burden school board members just elected on Nov. 2 with "relitigating" the issue.

More:Panel upholds school mask rule after House GOP sought review

More:Pa. school boards bearing brunt of anti-mask parents' anger. Hear what the sides say

J.D. Prose is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network's Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jprose@gannett.com.