Wearing masks all day isn’t a big deal for Brooke Vaught’s 375 students. They compliment each other on their cool choices — bright colors, Batman, funky designs — they put them on, and get down to the business of learning.
”We haven’t had any issues,” said Vaught, principal of Hancock Elementary in the Norristown Area School District, which educates children in first through fourth grades. “It feels like an adult problem.”
On the second day of Pennsylvania’s mandatory school masking order, Gov. Tom Wolf and Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, traveled to Hancock to emphasize what they say it will take to keep children in classrooms all school year, even as COVID-19 rages on.
With every one of her students too young to be vaccinated, Vaught said masking is on top of her list.
”Our teachers and staff feel safer with a mask mandate for all,” Vaught said at a news conference Wednesday.
The masking order has proven divisive in some communities, with one Pennsylvania district openly flouting the state’s directive and allowing families to decide whether to send their children in face coverings.
Other districts have shifted plans, moving from mask-optional procedures to requiring masks in name but allowing broad latitude for parents to opt their children out of mask-wearing, with or without medical proof of a need for such exemptions.
In the Pennridge School District, one such local school system that is allowing no-questions exemptions, former Pennridge parent John Seager on Wednesday filed a private criminal complaint against the school board over the district’s reaction to the mask mandate, saying it violated state laws.
A legal challenge to Wolf’s mask mandate has been filed by state Republican lawmakers, who have also said they’re planning a legislative response.
The rise of the delta variant and the fact that many schoolchildren are still too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19 necessitated the masking order, Wolf said.
It was a position reversal for the governor, who had earlier said it would be up to individual districts to choose the best path for their communities. Most Pennsylvania districts did not enact mask mandates prior to the state order.
”Masks are one of the best tools we have to keep kids in the classroom and keep COVID out,” Wolf said from behind a lectern in Hancock’s gymnasium.
Districts that fail to adhere to the masking mandate could face criminal sanctions and civil lawsuits, per the state’s order, but Wolf and Education Secretary Noe Ortega declined to discuss penalties, and Wolf downplayed the number of districts and parents that were skirting the order, directly or indirectly.
”There are a whole lot of parents who want to keep their children safe,” Wolf said.
Ortega said the state Education Department had taken note of “a lot of great behavior among courageous districts” like the Norristown Area School District, which staked a position on masking early.
”We’ve been focused on the incentives,” Ortega said.
Pringle, the NEA president and a Philadelphia native and Girls High graduate, underscored the need for vaccines, testing, and masking. She said she’s been struck in recent days by the joy of students starting school again, many for the first time in 18 months.
”We, the adults in the system, must share in the responsibility to keep them safe,” Pringle said.
Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania Education Association, agreed. There’s a cost to not having kids in school, he said.
”Frankly, we have a lot of work to do with our kids,” said Askey. “Our students are facing learning delays and mental health needs that simply cannot be ignored.”