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Update, Nov. 10: Commonwealth Court on Wednesday ruled against the mask order. The Department of Health has appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, which immediately stays the lower court’s ruling, according to a spokesperson. This story has also been updated with data on child vaccinations.
HARRISBURG — A statewide order mandating students, staff, and visitors to public and private K-12 schools to wear a mask while indoors is expected to be lifted Jan. 17, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday.
At that point, local school officials will be allowed to decide what mitigation efforts to implement.
Part of the order that applies to early learning programs and child care centers will remain in effect until further notice, Wolf said in a statement.
The order was issued by acting Health Secretary Alison Beam on Sept. 7, about a week into the school year and about a month after Wolf said his administration would leave decisions about mask requirements up to local officials. The administration moved forward with the mandate after many of the state’s 500 public school districts did not require masking, and as cases of COVID-19 started to increase in the state as a result of the spread of the delta variant.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all students, staff, and visitors wear masks in schools, regardless of vaccination status.
“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 in a statement Monday. “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.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy indicated at a briefing Monday that he would consider lifting his state’s school mask mandate once children get vaccinated, noting that one of the reasons for the mandate was the inability, up until now, for young children to get the vaccine. He said he may consider lifting the mandate at different times for high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools based on the vaccination rates in the 12-to-17 and 5-to-11 age groups.
“With each child who gets vaccinated and enters a classroom with an educator who was vaccinated and sits among their peers who are vaccinated, the closer we get to being able to lift this requirement,” Murphy said.
The New Jersey mask mandate expires Jan. 11 and would have to be renewed then, the governor said, but he hoped “this is the beginning” of reaching a point, “sooner than later,” when the mandate is no longer necessary.
The CDC expanded recommendations for the Pfizer vaccine to children 5 to 11 on Nov. 2. Since then, health systems and pharmacies across Pennsylvania have begun vaccinating children in that age group. As of Tuesday morning, 18,841 children in the 5-11 age group from the 66 counties under the state health department’s jurisdiction have received their first dose of the pediatric Pfizer vaccine, according to data provided by the health department. Philadelphia County runs its own vaccine program and is not included in that count.
School districts like West Chester saw COVID-19 cases decline in upper grade levels once those children were eligible for vaccination, and Superintendent Bob Sokolowski hopes the same will now be true in elementary schools — which would make it easier to drop masking requirements in January.
Still, “there’s a lot to be determined,” Sokolowski said — including how many parents choose to vaccinate younger children, what happens with transmission rates this winter, and whether the state changes its quarantine guidelines. Currently, if a student has been in close contact with a classmate who tests positive for COVID-19, but both were masked, the first doesn’t have to quarantine.
Not masking “could dramatically increase the number of kids who go out because of close contacts,” Sokolowski said.
In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) called Wolf’s announcement “a step in the right direction.”
“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,” Ward said.
The administration’s order was challenged by Republicans in the state legislature and was the subject of several lawsuits, including two before the Commonwealth Court.
The first was brought by State Sen. Jake Corman — the top Republican in the Senate — and Rep. Jesse Topper (R., Bedford), both in their capacity as parents, not lawmakers. Corman and Topper, along with a group of other parents, argued that the order is unlawful because it should have been issued through the regulatory process, and questioned whether the health secretary has the authority under public health law to issue such an order.
Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court on Wednesday sided 4-1 with Corman, Topper, and those parents. The decision struck down the order and stated Beam did not have the authority to issue the masking requirement outside of the regulatory process.
Writing for the majority, Judge Christine Fizzanno Cannon, a Republican, said the state’s public health laws do not give Beam “the blanket authority to create new rules and regulations out of whole cloth.”
Health department officials on Wednesday directed counsel to file an appeal, which will “immediately stay the Commonwealth Court’s decision,” a health department spokesperson said in a statement. “Given the appeal, today’s ruling doesn’t impact current implementation of the masking order.”
House and Senate Republican leadership — including Corman — praised the court’s decision Wednesday, saying it returns the power to make decisions about masking to parents and school boards.
The second lawsuit, brought by a separate group of parents, argued that the order violated religious freedoms.
The order was similarly challenged by the House Health Committee, chaired by Rep. Kathy Rapp (R., Warren), which voted along party lines in September to ask for a rarely assembled state panel to review the order and decide whether it should have been issued instead as a regulation.
The letter, initiated by Rapp, also questioned whether the health secretary had the authority to issue the order without a state of emergency declared by the governor.
The Joint Committee on Documents, which includes members of the Wolf administration and leaders from the state legislature, rejected Rapp’s argument in October by a 7-4 vote, finding it did not need to be issued through the regulatory process and allowed it to stand as issued.
Inquirer staff writers Maddie Hanna and Justine McDaniel contributed to this article.
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