York County split on Gov. Tom Wolf's new mask mandate

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch
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The debate over mask mandates continues across Pennsylvania in the wake of Gov. Tom Wolf's new statewide mask mandate for schools and child care facilities.

"I feel like we're finally doing the right thing," said Central York parent and nurse Lauren Grafton. 

The mandate will take effect Sept. 7, shortly after all York County public school districts resumed classes for the 2021-2022 school year.

At the time of Wolf's announcement, only four local school districts had some form of a mask mandate already in place. The remaining 12 districts had planned to keep masks optional for students and staff. 

The 12 districts have remained silent on the mandate since Tuesday's  announcement.

State officials are encouraging districts to update their health and safety plan to reflect the new order, but it is not required. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, all districts must comply with the mandate regardless of their individual policies.

Wolf's announcement was met with backlash from several GOP legislators, who largely supported leaving mask policies up to local school districts. Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lititz, called Wolf out on changing course on his previous promise to not reinstate a mask mandate. 

"It is incredibly frustrating that Governor Wolf has announced that he will, in fact, do exactly what he said he wouldn’t," Aument said in a news release. "It erodes the public’s already thinning trust in government when officials say they’ll do one thing and then turn around and do the exact opposite."

READ MORE: Traditions, with a twist, for returning students required to mask

Universal masking in schools has been a hot topic among York County parents, leading to several heated school board meetings this summer. The strong opinions continued after Wolf's announcement, with dozens of local parents criticizing the decision online. 

"This is so sad," Kandy Sell Zeigler said, on Facebook. "My granddaughter is having so much fun without the mask this year. And the kids are not sick in her school!"

People gather outside the Central York School District offices prior to a school board meeting there Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. A group of about 70 people rallied regarding pandemic safety procedures in the district. Bill Kalina photo

But for other parents, the announcement came as a relief. Grafton, who weeks ago encouraged the Central York School District to reinstate a mask mandate to no avail, said she was excited to hear about the statewide mandate. So was her son, a fourth-grader who apparently ran around the house cheering when he heard the news, she said. 

READ MORE:Central School Board meeting spawns student-masking rally

The mandate was also met by support from the Pennsylvania State Educators Association and local health experts, who agreed that universal masking is the best way to keep students and staff safe through growing concerns over the delta variant. 

"It will help us get through the winter," said Casey Pinto, a public health expert with Penn State University. 

READ MORE: Kindergarten teachers relieved to return to class after year of COVID stress

Throughout the masking debate, conversation about  COVID-19 vaccines was pushed to the sidelines. Children under 12 still cannot receive the vaccine, and no school districts in York County currently require the vaccine for eligible students or staff. Despite this, experts believe vaccines are still the best bet at putting a stop to the pandemic. 

With younger children unable to get vaccinated, Grafton said she doesn't have a strong opinion on how school districts should handle vaccine policies. However, she does encourage everyone who can get vaccinated to do so. She said it's the one thing individuals can do to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. 

"Otherwise it's going to be here forever," Grafton said. 

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