Get ready for a lot of discussion about the mask mandate in schools in the coming weeks. The situation is fluid: Just this week, the state Supreme Court temporarily extended Gov. Tom Wolf’s mandate, while his administration appeals a recent court ruling that struck it down. Regardless of the outcome of that ongoing case, Wolf has said he plans to let school districts decide about masks for themselves in January.
The issue of masks has been hotly debated since the beginning of the pandemic, nowhere more so than in schools. While some communities are eager to let students see each others’ smiling faces, an increase in cases, the relatively low rate of vaccinations in kids, and the threat of a worse winter (and a potentially dangerous new variant) has left others wondering if now is the right time to give up the mandate.
Two local experts weigh in: Should Pennsylvania end school mask mandates?
Yes: It’s time to lift the school mask mandate in Pa. In fact, it’s overdue.
By Chadwick Schnee
One way or another, the commonwealth’s mask mandate in schools will soon be coming to an end — and that’s a good thing for our children. It’s welcome news to advocates for parental decision-making and the rule of law.
What is troubling, however, is that the mask mandate was implemented in the first place. In early August, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that he would not require children to wear masks in schools and left the decision to individual school districts across the commonwealth. While there is an open legal question as to whether school districts have the authority to require students to wear masks in schools, the concept of allowing school districts to make the decision at least comports with the words of Thomas Jefferson, who remarked that “the government closest to the people serves the people best.” In other words, let local districts decide what works best for them.
“Let local districts decide what works best for them.”
In August, school boards across the commonwealth heard loudly from their constituents on both sides of the masking issue. Each school board weighed the pros and cons of whether to require students to wear masks, held advertised meetings open to the public, and voted in public as to whether they would require masks for the 2021-22 school year. The decision-making process of school boards was largely transparent, and, given the November municipal election, each school board could be (and were) held accountable for the decisions made regarding masks.
Most school districts in the state ended up not requiring masks, and either did or planned to start the school year by opening their doors to greet the smiling faces of children.
Then at the end of August, the governor, reversing his earlier decision, announced that he believed the vast majority of elected school boards made the “wrong” decision and established a statewide mask mandate. The sudden and unexpected mask mandate forced public and private schools (let alone parents and students) to scramble to make sense of his eleventh hour order with terms open for interpretation, such as whether exemptions are permitted for individuals who state they cannot wear a mask. The mask mandate should never have been implemented in the first place, and as a lawyer, I represent parents who have sued the state to have it lifted. Simply from a legal perspective, the governor lacked the authority to issue the mask mandate, something the Commonwealth Court correctly determined.
But this isn’t a purely legal question. It’s about our kids and their health — including their mental health. Fear, itself a virus, has spread exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the sudden change in masking requirements and imprecise language in the mandate undoubtedly made mental health issues and social adjustment worse for countless students and their parents by taking the decision away from their friends and neighbors serving on local school boards. What’s more, masking and other COVID-19 protocols can have a negative impact on kids. In its school reopening guidance, the Bucks County Health Department noted what countless parents already knew: “The effects of ongoing COVID-19 mitigation efforts have led to significant learning loss, mental health issues, and social adjustment difficulties in many students.”
Let’s allow our children to return to a more normal school year.
Chadwick Schnee is an attorney at the Law Office of Tucker R. Hull LLC, based in Annville, Pa., and represents parents in litigation regarding the mask mandate and a wide variety of other issues.
No: The statewide school mask mandate should stay in place.
By Arthur G. Steinberg
If the past 20 months have taught us anything, it is that being prepared is better than being caught flat-footed. Countries, states, and municipalities that have employed layered COVID-19 mitigation strategies (masks, testing, vaccines) have fared better in every way: fewer people sick, fewer people dead, shorter economic and social disruption.
Ultimately, COVID-19 and its variants have been allowed to linger for far too long in the name of “freedom.” The inconvenience of wearing a mask pales in comparison to the move to virtual learning, shuttered businesses, and people getting sick and dying. As a society, most of us understand that virus mitigation is temporary; we put in the work now of wearing masks, getting vaccinated, and keeping our distance, and this virus will stop spreading. It is too soon to say we have won and quit doing the things that are keeping us safe.
“It is too soon to say we have won and quit doing the things that are keeping us safe.”
Over the past few weeks, it has been so heartening and encouraging to see so many children getting shots in their arms following the FDA’s approval of the COVID-19 vaccine. The more kids who roll up their sleeves, along with the adults in their families and staff in their schools, the less likely schools will need to suspend in-person learning due to outbreaks, and the quicker masks can come off. As a grandparent myself, seeing my grandkids get vaccinated has provided a sense of relief for our entire family.
A recent study showed that in the absence of face coverings, an unprotected cough is not safe at six feet away, even outdoors. And yet, when the Pennsylvania Department of Education requested all 500 school districts submit their COVID-19 safety plans for the 2021-22 school year, only a small minority were planning to require universal masking. As the president of a union representing 64 locals, I am unsurprised that school administrators need to be cajoled into protecting the health and safety of workers and students. But it is still shocking that most of Pennsylvania’s school administrators or school directors cannot be trusted to act in the interest of student and public health.
In May, when adult vaccination rates were steadily climbing, Gov. Tom Wolf kept the statewide mask mandate in place until 70% of Pennsylvania adults were fully vaccinated, something we recently learned we have yet to achieve. A similar benchmark should be set for school students before making face coverings optional.
One of the inequities in public education highlighted by this pandemic is in the condition of our school buildings — many of the schools where students and educators spend five days a week were already making them sick, due to lead, asbestos, and other hazards. What’s more, many school buildings lacked proper ventilation prior to COVID-19, and still do.
COVID-19 has exposed and further widened the preexisting inequities in education in the state. But we are so close to being out of the woods of this virus, despite the emerging threat of the omicron variant. Masking requirements are not forever; just until all layers of mitigation, including the vaccination of a high percentage of school kids, are successful in making further inroads against this virus.
When our kids go to school, they have a right to be free from pathogens that make them sick. We need to be patient and protect that freedom.
Arthur G. Steinberg is president of AFT Pennsylvania, a union representing 36,000 educators, paraprofessionals, school staff, and state workers across 64 local unions.