The decision of whether Pennsylvania school children will be required to wear masks will be returned to local officials as of Jan. 17.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday that mask and mitigation efforts will be returned to officials at the local level and that schools may use their own discretion to determine COVID-19 mitigation strategies based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

“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. “During the announcement, my administration made clear that we would continue to reevaluate the status of the school mask mandate. 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.

“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. With more than 70 percent of adults vaccinated in Pennsylvania and the recently expanded vaccine eligibility, I strongly encourage parents to take safety measures to protect your children and your family – like getting vaccinated.”

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) welcomed the move.

“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,” Ward said.  “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.”

Did the outcome of the Nov. 2 election weigh on Wolf’s decision?

“Without question,” said Back to School PA PAC Executive Director Clarice Schillinger, when asked if she thought the election results played a role in Wolf’s decision-making.

Meanwhile, Paul Martino, one of the founders of the Back to School PA political action committee, which saw 60 percent of its candidates win statewide, said, “Clarice has been saying this all along…We are not surprised.”

While the PAC’s core issue was keeping kids in school, many parent and grandparent voters were also upset over mask mandates.

“The coincidence is undeniable that Gov. Wolf decided to now let masking guidance up to individual schools just days after the school board elections,” said Schillinger. “What that means, is everyone is now preparing and looking at the governor’s race in 2022. It is a real shame our children and their education has been caught between what is best for their learning and political power plays.”

Some area health departments also reacted.

“While we can’t know right now what the COVID landscape will look like in two months, the Bucks County Health Department is hopeful,” said spokesman James T. O’Malley. “What we do know is that the surest way for things to improve is for all eligible people to get vaccinated — including school-aged children.”

Kelly Cofrancisco, a spokeswoman for Montgomery County said, “The Office of Public Health will be meeting to discuss the governor’s announcement but we do not have any comment right now.”

But prior to Wolf’s order Montgomery County was only recommending masks based on transmission levels, she noted.

Meanwhile, Chester County Health Director Jeanne Franklin said, ““School districts and schools in Chester County have established their health & safety plans that include layered COVID-19 prevention strategies based upon state guidance, and all school leaders have worked throughout the pandemic to determine the plan that is best for their staff and students. With Governor Wolf’s announcement that decisions about masks will return to local school officials in mid-January, schools will review their health and safety plans related to mask use, and update if needed.  

“The Chester County Health Department will continue its role in monitoring all COVID-19 activity within schools, as well as providing support in the ways in which schools report, monitor and mitigate COVID-19 – just as it does with all infectious disease outbreaks,” she said.


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