York County schools relax COVID masking policies, despite CDC guidance

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch
Ellen Connelly talks changes in her classroom at Dallastown Area Middle School Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. Desks in the classroom have been rearranged to accommodate social distancing. Bill Kalina photo

Despite federal guidance that calls for everyone who steps inside a K-12 school to wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status, most York County schools plan to keep them optional for all students and staff.

Fifteen of the county's 16 school districts approved health and safety plans that state masks and COVID-19 vaccines are optional for the start of the 2021-2022 school year. All school districts must submit their health and safety plans by July 30 to be eligible for COVID-19 relief funds, but they are not required to follow CDC recommendations in the plans. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance Tuesday recommending that all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks indoors at K-12 schools, due to concerns over the Delta variant. Previously, only unvaccinated individuals were advised to wear masks.

Further complicating matters: Gov. Tom Wolf told KDKA he has no plans to reinstate a mask mandate despite the CDC guidelines. The statewide mask mandate was lifted for all residents on June 28.

Wolf said he intends to stick to his strategy of encouraging Pennsylvanians to get vaccinated. 

The CDC also encouraged the public to get a COVID-19 vaccine, although none of the vaccines have yet been approved for children younger than 12. Officials still recommended schools teach students through full-time in-person learning. 

A kindergartner at Ferguson K-8 in the York City School District proudly displays his copy of “Señorita Mariposa” he received through WITF's Explore in the Classroom program. WITF announced the program delivered 3,180 free books and educational resources to 59 classrooms in Harrisburg, York City, and Lancaster school districts. Each of the 1,069 students received an educational kit containing books, three interactive lesson plans, and four STEAM activities: scratch art; model magic; cloth face masks; and foam picture frames. submitted

State health and education officials announced earlier this summer that they would not issue separate guidance for K-12 schools and instead would follow the CDC's guidance. Most of the guidelines are recommendations, which the state Department of Education will not enforce, department spokeswoman Kendall Alexander said. 

Even for the limited federal orders still in effect for schools, Alexander said, the education department does not have the power to enforce them. However, several officials from school districts across the county said they plan to follow direct orders from state or federal agencies. 

All local schools were required to follow universal masking and other safety protocols during the majority of the 2020-2021 school year. In late November, the 16 school districts in York County each signed an attestation form agreeing to comply with safety guidelines in order to keep their schools open while the county was categorized as having substantial virus spread.

York County remained in the substantial category until early May, at which point all of the requirements went back to recommendations. 

Many of the districts that approved optional masking policies faced pressure from parents this summer. At least 50 parents showed up to testify at local school board meetings through June and July to testify against mask mandates. The most common argument heard was that parents should have control over whether their child wears a mask at school. 

More:At least 10 local school districts plan to keep masks optional for the 2021-22 school year

More:At board meetings around York County, parents railed against mask, vaccine mandates for next school year. No district was proposing any

The relaxed safety policies could pose a risk to educators who are immunocompromised, said Chris Lilienthal, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association. He said school districts should follow state guidance for COVID-19 safety in order to keep schools open for in-person instruction, which he said is "vitally important" for students. 

"We need to follow the science," Lilienthal said. 

Dallastown Area High School held its 2021 graduation ceremony Tuesday, June 8. Bil Bowden photos.

The new guidance does not appear to change much for York County schools. Officials from South Western, Southern York County and Dallastown school districts confirmed that they would not change their optional mask policy despite the CDC's updated recommendation. 

Dallastown spokeswoman Nicole Montgomery said district officials are monitoring CDC and state guidance, and while they're sticking with their original health and safety plan for now, they are capable of switching the plan on short notice. Officials have not discussed additional precautions for the delta variant or for immunocompromised staff and students, she said.

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