Wolf to end mask mandate for schools, let districts set own rules in January

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch

Gov. Tom Wolf announced a plan Monday that would allow school districts to modify his earlier mask mandate for K-12 students.

The move came amid rising caseloads in York County schools but also follows the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's approval of vaccines for increasingly younger children.

Wolf plans to turn over decisions about masking to local school officials on Jan. 17, although the acting health secretary's mask mandate will remain in place for early learning programs and child care facilities.

“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,” Wolf said in a statement released by his office. “Unfortunately, the COVID-19 virus is now a part of our daily lives, but with the knowledge we’ve gained over the past 20 months and critical tools like the vaccine at our disposal, we must take the next step forward in our recovery.”

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The Wolf administration imposed a statewide mandate in early September, citing a surge in infections and hospitalizations from the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus. The order from acting Health Secretary Alison Beam required that students, staff and visitors at K-12 schools and child care facilities wear masks while indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

At the time the mandate was announced, only four out of 16 public school districts in York County had implemented their own mask requirements — York City, York Suburban, Southern York County and Dover Area. 

The mandate sparked fierce backlash from some parents, and two lawsuits seeking to overturn it are pending. At least three York County school districts — West York, Spring Grove and Central York — are participating in the lawsuits. 

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

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The decision to end the statewide mandate comes days after federal officials approved the COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. Wolf cited Pennsylvania's high vaccination rate among adults in the announcement.

Although COVID-19 cases statewide have begun to dip, cases continue to spread at a steady pace through York County schools. As of Monday, York County schools had recorded at least 2,668 cases during the 2021-22 school year, and are close to passing the total number of cases recorded through all of the previous school year. 

Wolf had previously vowed local school officials would be empowered to make decisions on masking, but he later reversed himself, saying a universal, statewide order was warranted amid a coronavirus surge in late summer and after most of the state's 500 districts did not impose their own masking requirements.

The two pending lawsuits assert the Wolf administration had no legal right to impose the statewide mandate. The plaintiffs — among them the top leader of the state Senate, President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre — include parents who contend that masks interfere with their children's breathing and cause other problems. Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court heard arguments in the suits last month but has yet to rule.

Beam's order said school officials who do not enforce masking may face criminal penalties and could lose immunity from civil lawsuits. 

This article includes reporting from The Associated Press.