Pa. Senate panel advances proposal to opt-out of K-12 mask mandate

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by Marley Parish, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
September 28, 2021

Republican state lawmakers are looking for ways around Pennsylvania’s K-12 mask mandate, including a bill whose prime sponsor is using a discredited German study to undermine the order and skirt questioning.

“Facts are funny things,” Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, said while leaving Tuesday’s Senate Education Committee meeting.

The 11-member panel had just voted on party lines to approve a bill, sponsored by Mastriano, that would give parents the option to opt-out of the Wolf administration’s most recent K-12 mask mandate. 

The proposal requires districts to state that a child exempted from the mask mandate will not be subject to harassment or discriminatory treatment, including isolation from others.

A since-retracted German study has served as the backbone for Mastriano’s opposition to the mask mandate and false claims that wearing face-coverings leads to adverse health effects. JAMA Pediatrics, a peer-reviewed medical journal, withdrew its publication of the study in July, citing concerns over its methodology and reliance on public opinion.

“My office has literally received hundreds of calls over the past couple weeks and emails from parents, and interactions on the street at events where I’m out and about, describing the breathing problems and increased ill-effects of the health and psychological damage to their own children, as well as treatment and bullying in schools,” Mastriano told the committee.

Acting state Health Secretary Alison Beam testified before the Senate panel in August and said that there is no evidence to support the notion that wearing masks, especially in a classroom setting, impairs a child’s learning ability or results in poor communication skills. At the time, Beam’s comments were met with scoffs from frustrated parents.

Dozens of medical experts — including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Academy of Sciences of the United States — have published reports and highlighted additional studies that show mask-wearing reduces the spread of COVID-19. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents doctors specializing in children’s health, supports universal masking for those older than 2.

“Have you reviewed any of the other numerous medical studies regarding the effectiveness of mask-wearing that have not been retracted?” Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, the ranking Democrat on the panel, asked Mastriano.

Neglecting to give a direct answer, Mastriano doubled down on the debunked German study, saying that he speaks German and only a portion is written in English. 

He also noted a CDC study, published in May, that reported a 21 percent lower COVID-19 transmission rate in schools where masks were required. Mastriano, however, falsely summarized the study’s findings as saying there’s “no significant difference” in schools with opposing masking policies. The report notes that “multifaceted prevention strategies,” including masking, prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Ahead of the 2021-22 school year, the Wolf administration said it was leaving mask policies up to local districts to decide. School boards across the commonwealth faced contentious meetings and pushback from residents when making decisions about mask mandates. Last week, a panel of educators testified before the Senate committee and described community divides as a result of changing policy.

The mandate, which took effect Sept. 7, was enacted in response to rising case counts among school-aged children, the Wolf administration said last month. The measure is supported by the Education Law Center — a statewide legal advocacy organization — a number of grassroots education groups, the state’s two largest teachers unions.

“Universal masking in schools helps reduce serious health risks for students, staff, and their families,” Chris Lilienthal, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Education State Education Association, told the Capital-Star on Tuesday. “It also keeps students safe and in the classroom by significantly reducing unnecessary interruptions to in-person learning.”

Mastriano’s bill puts those priorities “in jeopardy,” he added. 

Since Aug. 16, more than 32,633 school-aged children — aged 18 and younger — have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to state data that’s updated weekly. From March 2020 to August 2021, 16 deaths occurred among those aged 15-19, according to data provided by the state Health Department.

“That is a lot of kids who are suffering,” Williams said of recent data. “That is a lot who are getting sick, and there is a lot of risk that I’m not willing to take with our kids.”

Mastriano, however, said children are the “least vulnerable,” comparing COVID-related deaths among children to adults.

“How many [deaths] does it take to change your mind regarding mask mandates?” Williams asked in response.

Mastriano opted not to provide an answer and defended giving parents the option to decide on masking in schools. The Senate could vote on the legislation this week, sending it to the House of Representatives for consideration. 

If the bill reaches Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk, it’ll be vetoed.

“The bill supporters’ efforts would better serve their constituents and the commonwealth as a whole by focusing on increasing the vaccination rates within their legislative districts instead of working on this unnecessary legislation,” an administration spokesperson told the Capital-Star in a statement. “We need Republicans to stop spending their time undermining public health and instead encourage people to get vaccinated.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: [email protected] Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.