The Philadelphia School District will not lift its mask mandate unless U.S. and city health officials say children are safe to remove face coverings, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Tuesday.
Gov. Tom Wolf had said he will lift Pennsylvania’s statewide school masking order Jan. 17 — and a court order could end it even sooner — allowing local school districts to decide whether they want to go mask optional.
But Hite, who appeared with Pennsylvania Education Secretary Noe Ortega at Lamberton Elementary in West Philadelphia on Tuesday, noted that Philadelphia had put its mask mandate in place before Pennsylvania’s was enacted. Both he and Ortega said their priority was to continue in-person school and suggested masking was the best way to achieve that goal.
“We’re going to continue the masking until the guidance suggests otherwise,” Hite said. Vaccines just became available for the majority of district students — 1,000 Philadelphia pupils ages 5 to 11 received inoculations at district clinics over the weekend — and COVID-19 is still very much a reality, the superintendent said.
Masks remain a hot-button issue at the state level. Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court this month struck down Health Secretary Alison Beam’s masking order for schools, saying Beam did not have the authority to issue such an order. The state appealed, which has kept the order in place, but the court said Tuesday the stay would be lifted Dec. 4. It’s unclear whether Beam could impose a new order.
But Ortega stressed the need to continue to remain vigilant against COVID-19, with masks and other measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
“This is not just about face coverings or other things that people want to highlight,” Ortega said. “This is about the compendium of things that we’re doing, and those are things that are keeping our schools open.”
In Philadelphia, Hite said masking remained part of a layered mitigation strategy endorsed by the CDC and Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health, and he noted the district was also working toward weekly testing for all non-vaccinated students, per a city health department recommendation.
Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole made that recommendation weeks ago, but the district has not been able to offer that testing — except to symptomatic students, student athletes, and some children who participate in performing arts activities.
“We’re still setting up the structures to do that,” Hite said. “It’s just been a matter of capacity for us.”
School nurses, who are responsible for testing symptomatic students, are overburdened and will not be performing testing for unvaccinated children, Hite said.
The district’s overall reported COVID-19 positivity rate for staff and students is at less than 1%, Hite said.
Hite and Ortega — who toured Lamberton, reading a book to second graders and checking out third graders’ digital literacy lesson — both underscored the importance of children returning to school after more than a year of interrupted learning.
Introducing himself to a group of Lamberton teachers gathered for a meeting, Ortega said their work was vital.
“What are we going to do about all that missed learning over the last 18 months? I’m sure you’re cracking the code right now,” Ortega said.
The school year has been a rough one, with COVID-19, a gun violence crisis, and staff shortages stretching thin school workers. One Oregon school district had such a tough time with staffing that it moved to a four-day week, at least temporarily.
Ortega said that was not an option on the table for Pennsylvania.
“We want to stay the course to offer full weeks in person,” Ortega said.