The next salvo in the ongoing fight over a mask mandate for Pennsylvania school students is likely to be fired from the floor of the statehouse in the state House of Representatives.
Republican lawmakers, who control the chamber, have scheduled four days of legislative business for next week and four more for the week of September 20. It’s anticipated the focus of those sessions will be an effort to overturn Gov. Tom Wolf’s mask mandate, which was announced on August 31 and took effect on September 7. It decrees students in grades K-12, faculty, and staff in all Pennsylvania schools must wear face coverings.
Wolf’s original policy left masking decisions up to individual school districts, or, in the case of some private schools, individual schools. The latest mandate represents a dramatic course change as Rep. Todd Polinchock (R-Chalfont) pointed out.
“Governor Tom Wolf changed his course of action by issuing a statewide mask mandate for schools and child care centers,” he said in a statement, “taking that decision away from the students, parents, teaches, and local elected officials who represent them.
“As has been the case throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, conditions vary widely in different areas of the state and local control is the best way to deal with those variations. Regardless of your position on mask-wearing, when local officials are in control, you have the best opportunity to make your voice heard. Therefore, I will continue to stand for local control and not statewide mandates,” he said.
As recently as a few weeks ago, the governor himself said masking at schools should be a local decision.
“Apparently, he’s only for local control if the local officials agree with him,” Polinchock said. “Our caucus is assessing the means through which the governor is issuing this mandate and what next steps are available to districts, parents, and the legislature.”
Polinchock was one of seven members of the Bucks County House Republican Caucus who issued a joint statement on masking. The group included Reps. Frank Farry (Langhorne), Wendi Thomas (Richboro), Meghan Schroeder (29th, Warminster), Shelby Labs (143rd, R-Doylestown), Kathleen C. ‘KC’ Tomlinson (18th-Bensalem), and Craig Staats (145th-Quakertown) in addition to Polinchock.
Their statement read: “For months now our local school districts, working with parents and medical authorities, crafted mitigation policies for our teachers and school children. These policies, including whether to require universal masks, were tailored for each district. These were the policies supported by the governor, who told Pennsylvanians broad, universal mitigation orders were inefficient and less effective than local decision-making.
“Disappointingly, the governor reversed himself from supporting local decision making to once again using a one-size-fits-all approach.
“The coronavirus impacts Pennsylvania’s cities, towns, and counties in different ways. Understanding this is the key to effectively protecting our kids, which is why local control is critical. Imposing a one-size, fits-all approach is an ineffective strategy for combating a health crisis.
“While both the science and the guidance surrounding COVID-19 continues to change rapidly, we hold to our position that those making decisions at the local level have the ability to react more quickly and effectively than their counterparts at the state level.
“The reality is local control includes school boards and local governments gathering input from health professionals, families, and educators so decisions are made that best serve the health, welfare, and education of our children in each community.”
The masking mandate is under fire in the Senate as well.
Senate Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) has joined a group of school administrators and parents who filed suit in Commonwealth Court in an effort to get the mask mandate thrown out. The suit alleges Acting Health Secretary Alison Bean is overstepping her authority by enforcing the mandate.
However, Bucks County Democratic Sen. Steve Santarsiero supports the governor’s mandate,
“The goal we all share is for students and faculty to have a productive and safe in-person school year. Requiring masks at this time will help achieve that goal,” Santarsiero said.
“Due to increasing COVID-19 case numbers here and the highly contagious delta variant, the CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. With no vaccines currently approved for children under 12 years of age, our students remain vulnerable to COVID-19. With a return to in-person instruction, mitigation efforts such as masking will limit the spread of COVID-19 and keep our students, teachers, and support staff healthy,” he said.
“It is most prudent that we continue to use the mitigation efforts we have seen work against this virus, so that our schools can remain open, and our students and teachers can benefit from in-person learning. I applaud Gov. Wolf and Sec. Beam’s action to keep students, teachers and staff in schools, and to keep Delta out,” Santarsiero said.
The suit is scheduled to be heard on September 16.