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May 20, 2022

Philly schools to bring back COVID-19 mask mandate, citing spike in cases

The measure takes effect Monday and will remain in place until further notice. An omicron subvariant has increased transmission rates in the Northeast

Education COVID-19
Philly Schools Mask Mandate Thom Carroll/For PhillyVoice

The School District of Philadelphia's new COVID-19 mask mandate will go into effect Monday and will continue until further notice. There will not be a new citywide mask mandate at this time.

The School District of Philadelphia will again require students and staffers to wear masks beginning Monday. The decision was made in response to rising COVID-19 cases and at the recommendation of the city's health department, district officials said. 

The new mask mandate will remain in effect until further notice, district officials said. 

"As we've learned since the pandemic began, the coronavirus continues to evolve and so too will our response to it in support of healthy schools and work spaces," the school district said in an email to families. 

Students and staff also will be required to wear masks while riding school buses and vans, taxis and ride-share services coordinated by the school district.

The return of the mask mandate in Philadelphia schools comes despite the health department declining to bring back a citywide mask mandate.

"While we are not looking to reinstate a mask mandate at this time, now is the time for Philadelphians to remember that the pandemic is still here and take precautions," Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole said Thursday.

Some Philadelphia schools independently had begun requiring masks again in recent weeks, but the mandate will now extend to all district schools. Elsewhere in the region, some school districts in Montgomery County have made similar moves. New Jersey schools also have adopted mask mandates in response to rising counts, a choice Gov. Phil Murphy has encouraged but not required.

Pennsylvania's statewide school mask mandate was overturned in December by the state Supreme Court, but individual school districts retain the authority to enforce their own mask mandates.

Philadelphia's last attempt to bring back a citywide mask mandate lasted just four days in April, when the city's Board of Health backtracked and voted to rescind the measure in the face of public criticism. Philadelphia had been the only major U.S. city to bring back a mask mandate. The health department subsequently scrapped its tiered COVID-19 response-level system that used benchmarks for cases and hospitalizations to determine whether a mask mandate and other restrictions needed to be implemented.

Since dropping the mask mandate in April, the health department has continued to strongly encourage mask wearing in indoor public spaces, but has taken a more flexible approach in evaluating the state of the pandemic. Officials have said they are relying more on hospitalization data to guide decision-making.

There were 142 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Philadelphia on Thursday – nearly double the total from three weeks ago, city health officials said. The city is averaging 434 new COVID-19 cases per day, the New York Times' COVID-19 tracker reports. That's up from 261 cases per day during the two-week period ending May 9.

Similar increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are happening across the nation. About one-third of Americans live in a county where the COVID-19 risk is currently high, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The situation is worse in the Northeast, where that rate is now at 40%.

The current surge is fueled by a new subvariant descended from omicron. It made up about half of U.S. cases last week, up from 39% from the week prior.

In addition to recommending vaccinations and booster shots, which are now available to children ages 5-11, the School District of Philadelphia also asks families to take extra precautions to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.