Just weeks after saying he wouldn’t impose any more mask mandates, Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf reversed course on Tuesday with an order from the state Department of Health mandating mask-wearing in K-12 public schools. The decision has lawmakers and key players in the school reopening process divided.
State Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Bellefonte) wrote in a statement, “this is exactly the kind of government overreach voters opposed when they stripped Gov. Wolf of the authority to unilaterally extend emergency declarations in May.” He added he did not understand the “flip-flop” on the stance of Wolf and Acting Health Secretary Allison Beam.
State Sen. Bob Mensch (R-Lansdale) responded to the new order in a tweet with a photo. The picture read, “NO to statewide mandates. YES to School District & Parent Decisions.”
But members of Wolf’s party seem to be embracing the new mandate.
“With no vaccines currently approved for children under 12 years of age, our students remain vulnerable to COVID-19,” said in a statement state Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D-Doylestown). “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.”
Santarsiero’s statement ended with praise for the governor. “I applaud Gov. Wolf and Sec. Beam’s action to keep students, teachers, and staff in schools, and to keep delta out.”
State Sen. John Kane (D-Chester) kept it simple in his statement to DVJournal: “This mask mandate will save lives.”
The new guidance means many school districts across the state will have to alter their plans for the new year. However, many schools in the Delaware Valley were already planning on returning to school with masks anyway.
“West Chester Area School District’s Health & Safety plan already requires masks inside all school buildings for students and staff regardless of vaccination status,” said WCASD spokesperson Jennifer Neill.
But for those that opted to make masks optional, a different start is on its way this year. Quakertown Community School District has a mask optional policy related to its district except if required by law.
With the law now changed, Superintendent Bill Harner wrote in a letter to district families, “I have consulted with School Board leadership, and confirmed their understanding that I have the authority to implement this mandate as directed by the Department of Health… In addition, our solicitor said we must comply with the order.”
Activists in the fight to reopen schools are worried this issue could be just the beginning of a rollback of schools getting back to normal.
“Our real concern is seeing Gov. Wolf changing his position on masking in three short weeks, we believe this is exactly what will happen to schools staying open,” said Clarice Schillinger, a Delaware Valley resident and founder of the Back to School PA PAC. Schillinger sees this as only an even greater reason to get out and vote in this year’s upcoming local elections to “keep our schools open.”
Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania State Education Association applauded the decision and viewed it as a measure that will keep schools open.
“This isn’t a choice between masking or not masking. It is a choice between keeping schools open for in-person learning or forcing far too many students to learn from the other side of a screen,” said PSEA President Rich Askey in a statement.
However, two Republican senators in the legislature are already proposing legislation to allow parents to opt their children out of the masking policies. And conversely, two Democratic representatives in the statehouse want to pass this mask mandate in the legislative branch.
While the validity of this new mandate may be challenged, it seems clear for now that in one week’s time when DelVal schools get back in class, masks will be on students’ faces and in their backpacks.