Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, which had been leaving decisions over mask requirements to local districts, reversed course Tuesday, ordering all schools and daycare centers in Pennsylvania to implement mask mandates.
In Philadelphia—where public schools reopened Tuesday—everyone must wear a mask in public and Catholic schools. But in many of the city’s suburbs, facial coverings have been the source of contentious debates at school board meetings. Fewer than half of districts in the state have required masks for students and teachers, Wolf said.
The universal mask order, issued by Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam, applies to all public, charter, parochial and private schools, as well as all childcare centers, and it goes into effect next Tuesday.
Wolf characterized mask wearing as essential to preventing excessive student quarantines and the best way to keep students in in-person classrooms.
“If we don’t do this, we’re not going to have a school year with kids in the classroom,” he said during an afternoon news conference. “And that’s going to be a lost school year for our children.”
That sentiment was echoed by the Pennsylvania State Education Association, a union representing teachers and other school staff.
“This isn’t a choice between masking or not masking,” PSEA President Rich Askey said in a statement. “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.”
Beam said several high school football games in Pennsylvania have already been canceled due to coronavirus exposures.
Infections among children under the age of 18 have nearly tripled over the past month-and-a-half, she added.
Vaccination rates for children in the 12-to-14 age group hover at below 20%, and just under 40% of older teenagers are fully immunized, state officials said. Kids under 12 are not eligible for the shot.
Overall COVID-19 case numbers in Pennsylvania have jumped from 300 a day in July to a current daily average of more than 3,000.
“The reality that we are living in now is extremely different than it was just one month ago,” Beam said.
Wolf said his administration will reassess the school mask mandate in early October to determine if it is still necessary.
The order was issued as some schools have already returned to fully in-person instruction and others are preparing to reopen in the coming days.
Wolf said he has tried to advise local districts to adopt universal masking, which is recommended in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for schools.
Last week, he was rebuffed in his attempt to convince Republican legislative leaders in Harrisburg to pass a bill requiring masks in schools.
“Our position throughout the pandemic has been consistent – we believe in local control,” State Senate President Jake Corman said in a statement Tuesday. “School districts are best suited to make the decisions regarding the health and safety of students, and they should be empowered to make those choices.”
Wolf said his office has received “an outpouring of messages” from parents seeking a statewide requirement and that he doesn’t understand why anyone would be opposed to it.
“I think this should be something that every parent should actually react to with great anticipation because this is a good thing,” he added. “It’ll be a good thing for their families.”