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August 31, 2021

Pennsylvania to require masks in schools, child care facilities, Wolf says

The new mandate goes into effect Sept. 7 as the state continues to battle a surge in new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations

Masks will soon be required in all of Pennsylvania's K-12 schools and child care facilities as the state tries to combat the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19.

The new statewide mandate will go into effect Sept. 7 at public, private and charter schools, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Tuesday. The guidance also will be enforced at facilities providing early childhood education and day care.

"The aggressive delta variant has changed everything for us," said Wolf, who earlier this summer said he would leave decisions about face mask requirements up to individual school districts and schools.

"Doing nothing is going to mean more sick kids; it's going to mean more days out of schools," he added. "It's going to mean more grief for our communities and more problems for our economy."

There are some exceptions to the mandate, including for those with preexisting medical conditions that make wearing masks difficult. Students can remove masks while actively eating or drinking, playing sports or musical instruments and while participating in physical education classes in areas with proper ventilation, the order from the Pennsylvania Department of Health says.

Masks also will not be required when individuals are "working alone and isolated from interaction with other people with little or no expectation of in-person interaction."

The order does not stipulate what disciplinary actions should be taken if individuals, schools or districts do not comply. Wolf tasked districts, their respective boards and families with carrying out mask enforcement with the understanding that it is essential to conducting in-person learning and extracurricular activities throughout the academic year.

"School districts are constantly in the business of enforcing policies that keep schools safe for learning for our students," Secretary of Education Noe Ortega said. " ... I think the enforcement measure that we rely on the most is the incentives, both to students and families, about what this creates in terms of an outcome." 

The face mask mandate comes amid a surge of new COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths in Pennsylvania. Acting Health Secretary Allison Beam said the state is averaging more than 3,000 new cases of the virus per day for the past couple weeks – compared to fewer than 300 per day during most of July.

There were more than 1,800 coronavirus patients in hospitals as of Tuesday. In mid-July, Beam said hospitalizations had dipped below 250. Twenty-one deaths in which COVID-19 was a contributing factor were reported Tuesday, more than any single-day total from July. 

When Wolf tasked individual school districts with deciding whether to enforce mask mandates, only 59 of the 474 districts that submitted health and safety plans to the Department of Education opted to require masks, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Of those 59 districts, 30 were in Allegheny County.

The School District of Philadelphia began classes Tuesday with a mask mandate in place. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is also requiring masks for all students, teachers, school staff and visitors. 

The Central Bucks School District, one of the largest public school systems in Pennsylvania, earlier in August voted against implementing a mask mandates, which prompted concerned parents to file a federal lawsuit and set up a GoFundMe page to support their legal challenge, according to 6ABC. Masks are also optional in Bensalem, Pennridge, Penn-Delco, Council Rock and Quakertown Community school districts, CBS3 reported. 

Masks are recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during in-person instruction. Philadelphia's acting Health Commissioner, Cheryl Bettigole, said last week that masks are "the single most important thing" to protect students.