FILE - Students Masks Testing

Students with face masks back at school taking a test.

(The Center Square) – Less than a week after the Department of Health ordered universal masking in Pennsylvania schools, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration faces its first legal challenge on what many critics consider a shameful last-minute policy reversal.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, leads a group of parents and Republican lawmakers from the Legislature on a lawsuit filed in Commonwealth Court on Friday that deems the order illegal, the The Associated Press first reported.

The challenge seeks an injunction on acting Health Secretary Alison Beam’s order, which went into effect Tuesday. Students, staff and visitors to all public, private and parochial schools must now wear masks or face penalties under the state’s Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 16.

The lawsuit comes just three days after Beam said an alarming rise in COVID-19 cases among school-age children forced the department’s hand.

Wolf also blamed an aggressive anti-masking campaign for bullying local school boards into forgoing a mandate, despite concerns raised by parents of students too young for vaccination.

Beam’s order also includes child care centers, where cases have likewise risen in recent weeks. Children younger than 2 remain exempt, per federal guidelines.

“The reality we are living in now is much different than it was just a month ago,” Beam said during an Aug. 31 news conference. “With case counts increasing, the situation has reached the point that we need to take this action to protect our children, teachers and staff.”

Beam said 92% of current COVID-19 cases are caused by the delta variant. Since the beginning of July, Pennsylvania’s caseload skyrocketed from 300 daily to more than 3,000, with cases among schoolchildren climbing by more than 11,000 during that same time.

“That’s nearly a 300% jump [for school children] in about six weeks here in Pennsylvania, and remember that half of those kids are not yet old enough to get a vaccine,” Beam said. “The reason for this jump in cases is the delta variant.”

Children younger than 12 remain ineligible for the vaccine, while 65.8% of adults are fully immunized, according to the department. Pennsylvania also ranks fifth in the nation for total doses administered.

Vaccination rates for children between the ages of 12-14 and 15-19 are 18.2% and 38.3%, respectively.

“The science is clear,” Beam said. “If we want to keep our schools open, maintain classroom learning and allow sports and other activities to continue, masking significantly increases our chances of doing so.”

The administration reversed course on masking last week after the Legislature said it was up to school districts to implement the policy. Wolf said for months that he, too, preferred that path – until it became clear that districts would not force masking en masse.

By his administration’s count, fewer than 13% of the 474 submitted health plans from districts include universal masking policies.

“It is completely disingenuous for him to flip-flop now when he didn’t like the choices school districts made,” Corman said last week of the announcement’s “problematic” timing. “It is disappointing Governor Wolf stood idly by and allowed our communities to be torn apart by this debate, only to pull the rug out from everyone at the last minute.”

A Wolf spokesperson told The Associated Press that it's time for "Republicans to stop spending their time undermining public heath and instead encourage people to get vaccinated."

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.