Wolf plans to let Pa. schools set their own mask rules in January: Officials

MARK SCOLFORO, MARC LEVY and MICHAEL RUBINKAM
The Associated Press

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania school districts will be allowed to modify or end the mask mandate for K-12 students in January, Gov. Tom Wolf was set to announce Monday, according to two education officials who were briefed on the plan.

The Democratic governor 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, according to officials at two school groups, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the official announcement.

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.

The mandate sparked fierce backlash among some parents, and two lawsuits seeking to overturn it are pending.

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

The decision to end the statewide mandate comes days after federal officials approved the COVID-19 vaccine for children five and older.

Wolf had previously vowed local school officials would be empowered to make decisions on masking, but later reversed, 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.

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.