HARRISBURG – Gov. Tom Wolf announced Tuesday that an indoor mask mandate for all K-12 schools, public and private, in Pennsylvania will take effect Sept. 7.
“The Department of Health is directing all early learning and child care and K-12 schools, private and public, across the state to require students and staff to wear masks while they’re indoors,” Wolf said. “This is a necessary step to keep our students and teachers safe and in the classroom, which is where they all need to be. Doing nothing right now to stop COVID-19, that’s just not an option. We have to act now to protect our students and our teachers. We have to get back to what matters, keeping students safe and keeping students in the classroom.”
Wolf said the order would be reviewed again in the first week of October.
“We’re going to continuously look at this,” Wolf said. “I can pretty much assure you the Department of Health will be looking at this every day. I’m going to be looking at this every day.”
This is a reversal of Wolf’s stand from earlier this month when he said he was not considering a mask mandate. Wolf sent a letter to state lawmakers last week requesting that they reconvene to issue a state mandate. Lawmakers rejected the request.
“This is something you could argue is past due,” Wolf said. “We tried. We sent out guides that said we’d like school districts to take charge of this. More than half have not. Then we sent a letter to the general assembly. They sent me a letter that said they didn’t want to do it. I’m the one left holding the bag, I’m the one that has to make the decision.”
Wolf cited surges in states like Louisiana, and a desire to slow a similar surge in Pennsylvania, as reasons for the mandate.
“The reality that we are living in now is extremely different than it was just one month ago,” acting Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Alison Beam said. “Pennsylvania, along with the rest of the nation, is seeing steep increases in cases, hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19.”
Beam added that the number of cases among Pennsylvanians aged 0 – 17 “rose by 277 percent between mid-July and Aug. 28.”
“We’re seeing evidence that students in schools where masks are optional are suffering the consequences of not following the public recommendations from the CDC,” Beam said. “Here in Pennsylvania, since schools reopened, more than 5,000 students have tested positive.”
The announcement will provide the first test to the Governor’s ability to issue such mandates following the statewide referendum limiting Wolf’s authority that was overwhelmingly approved by voters in May.
Wolf said the order comes from the DOH under a law that has been in place since the 1920s, and not from an emergency declaration. He said he does not expect the general assembly to try to overturn the order.
“We know there will be objection to this action,” Beam said. “We are asking folks to keep this in perspective. Last year, when there was this level of community transmission our students were learning virtually.”
Wolf refused to elaborate when pressed for what the specific penalties would be for individuals or districts who don’t comply with the order. Instead, he said the penalty to districts would come from parental displeasure with a lack of enforcement and the penalty to individuals would be a return to remote learning and cancelation of school activities.
“The real penalty is going to be imposed by parents upset with school districts for not doing right by their children,” Wolf said. “And in the end, what we all want is what they want and that is to keep kids in school and keep sports being played. Those are things we can’t do if we don’t do something like this.”
“We are already seeing a number of schools across the nation already beginning to close due to COVID-19,” PA Secretary of Education Noe Ortega added. “I can’t stress this enough, it is our duty to do everything possible to minimize the transmission of COVID-19 in our schools.”
The order comes as the state’s average confirmed daily infections has increased 20 percent over early July totals (now at 3,200 per day). According to the PA Department of Health’s daily COVID update, more than 1,800 patients are hospitalized across the state with 474 in the ICU and 276 on ventilators.
#COVID19 Update (as of 8/31/21 at 12:00 am):
• 3,249 additional positive cases of COVID-19
• 1,300,368 total cases statewide
• 28,235 deaths statewide
• 12,178,030 doses of vaccine have been administered (as of 8/31/21)
More information: https://t.co/7pzosEXhEX
— PA Department of Health (@PAHealthDept) August 31, 2021
Warren County reported 17 COVID-related hospitalizations as of noon on Aug. 31. None were in the ICU or on a ventilator.
The order came on the first day of school for Warren County School District students. The WCSD Board of Directors had previously voted to make masks optional in the classroom but required on school buses and vans under a standing federal mandate.
During Monday’s special board meeting, the board decided that students who violated the mask order on buses would receive warnings.
“School districts will be in charge of making sure students come to school in masks,” Wolf said.