Schools can set their own mask policies starting Jan. 17, when the current statewide order expires, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Monday.
The policy shift comes weeks after the state reached its 70% statewide vaccination target, Wolf said; and only days after COVID-19 vaccinations became available for children age 5 through 11.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health mandated masks in public, private and parochial schools Aug. 31 after months of deferring to local officials to make the decision. When more than 8 out of 10 districts opted against universal masking, however, the state abandoned its hands-off approach.
Wolf said the order was “critical” for keeping kids learning in person at the beginning of the school year.
“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. “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.”
The mask order took effect Sept. 7, after acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said COVID-19 cases among school children skyrocketed 300% between mid-July and the end of August.
Beam stood behind the order in a statement Monday.
She cited the effectiveness of masking effectiveness, “demonstrated over the past three months”. She is “confident local school leaders will take the steps necessary at the local level to preserve in-person education.”
“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,” Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Greensburg, 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.”
House Republicans were less enthused. Caucus spokesperson Jason Gottesman called Jan. 17 an “arbitrary” date; it represents a delay on the promise of lifting masking mandates once the state reaches a 70% vaccination rate.
“To make matters even worse, before the current school mask mandate was issued, local control was working through contentious, but productive input at the local level,” he said. “The decision today would have the unfortunate impact of forcing these local elected leaders, many of whom are newly elected, into the trying circumstance of relitigating these already-made decisions.”
The policy also includes child care centers, where cases had likewise risen in recent months. The administration said Monday the masking requirement will remain in place for these facilities “until further notice.”
“I have said repeatedly that the vaccine is our strategy out of the pandemic here in the commonwealth and Pennsylvanians are doing their part,” Wolf said. “With the availability of the pediatric vaccine, I encourage parents to talk to their doctors and pharmacists about getting their child vaccinated. That is the one, scientific way to keep ourselves and loved ones safe.”
Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania’s General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.