Wolf faces legal challenge to masking order

Gov. Tom Wolf and his administration faces its first legal challenge on what many critics consider a shameful last-minute policy reversal, less than a week after the Department of Health ordered universal masking in Pennsylvania schools.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, and a group of parents filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court Friday, claiming the order is illegal.

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The The Associated Press broke the story over the weekend.

The challenge seeks an injunction on acting Health Secretary Alison Beam’s order, which went into effect Tuesday.

She ordered students, staff and visitors to all public, private and parochial schools to wear masks; or face penalties under the state’s Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 16.

The lawsuit comes just three days after Beam said an alarming rise in COVID-19 cases among school-age children forced the department’s hand.

Beam’s order also includes child care centers, where cases have likewise risen in recent weeks. Children younger than 2 remain exempt, per federal guidelines.

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The blame game

Wolf blames an aggressive anti-masking campaign for bullying local school boards into forgoing a mandate. He claims those decisions are made despite concerns raised by parents of students too young for vaccination.

“The reality we are living in now is much different than it was just a month ago,” Beam said during an Aug. 31 news conference. “With case counts increasing, the situation has reached the point that we need to take this action to protect our children, teachers and staff.”

Beam said 92% of current COVID-19 cases are caused by the delta variant. Since the beginning of July, Pennsylvania’s caseload skyrocketed from 300 daily to more than 3,000. Cases among schoolchildren have climbed by more than 11,000 during that same time.

“That’s nearly a 300% jump [for school children] in about six weeks here in Pennsylvania, and remember that half of those kids are not yet old enough to get a vaccine,” Beam said. “The reason for this jump in cases is the delta variant.”Z

Children younger than 12 remain ineligible for the vaccine, while 65.8% of adults are fully immunized, according to the department. Pennsylvania also ranks fifth in the nation for total doses administered.

Vaccination rates for children between the ages of 12-14 and 15-19 are 18.2% and 38.3%, respectively.

“The science is clear,” Beam said. “If we want to keep our schools open, maintain classroom learning and allow sports and other activities to continue, masking significantly increases our chances of doing so.”

Reversing course

The administration reversed course on masking last week after the Legislature said it was up to school districts to implement the policy. Wolf said for months that he, too, preferred that path. He changed his mind when it became clear that districts would not force masking en masse.

By his administration’s count, fewer than 13% of the 474 submitted health plans from districts include universal masking policies.

“It is completely disingenuous for him to flip-flop now; when he didn’t like the choices school districts made,” Corman said last week. He called the announcement’s timing “problematic.”

“It is disappointing Governor Wolf stood idly by and allowed our communities to be torn apart by this debate,” he said. “Only to pull the rug out from everyone at the last minute.”

Christen Smith

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.