FILE - Students Masks Testing

Students with face masks back at school taking a test.

(The Center Square) – Gov. Tom Wolf said Monday students and staff in public schools must wear masks beginning Sept. 7, drawing immediate criticism from Republican legislative leaders.

The announcement comes after the governor’s request for the Legislature to enact the mandate instead went unfulfilled last week.

“The science is clear,” Wolf said during a news conference Tuesday. “The delta variant is highly transmissible and dangerous to the unvaccinated, many of whom are children too young to receive the vaccine. Requiring masks in schools will keep our students safer and in the classroom, where we all want them to be.”

The mandate, issued by acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam, applies to students and staff in kindergarten through 12th grade in public and private schools. The order also includes child care centers, where cases have likewise risen in recent weeks. Children younger than 2 remain exempt from the order, per federal guidelines.

“The reality we are living in now is much different than it was just a month ago,” Beam said. “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 after the Legislature said it was up to school districts to implement the policy. Wolf preferred that path, too, but said a widespread unwillingness at the local level to require masks was the result of “an aggressive nationwide campaign [that] is spreading misinformation about mask-wearing.”

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

Wolf also accused lawmakers of “pressuring" and “intimidating” school board officials to reject mask policies lest they face legislative and legal repercussions. 

Districts that ignore the department’s order may face penalties under the Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955 and face exposure to personal liability, the department said.

The House’s Republican leader, Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, said the mandate is “ill-advised.”

“Data clearly shows that this virus affects different areas of Pennsylvania in dissimilar ways, which is why local control that reflects on-the-ground realities is imperative,” he said. “History shows that a one-sized, fits-all approach to public health causes more anxiety and frustration than decisions made at the local level with local input. 

He and Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, questioned the legality of the order, while Benninghoff alone said he’d pursue a legislative fix to prevent it from happening again. 

“Protecting the health and safety of our children is always a top consideration for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle,” Corman said. “However, this is exactly the kind of government overreach voters opposed when they stripped Governor Wolf of the authority to unilaterally extend emergency declarations in May.”

The constitutional amendment passed by voters only limits the governor’s emergency powers, but does nothing to stop the department from using the Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955 to implement widespread masking and other mitigation efforts during a public health emergency. Wolf vetoed a bill in June that would have limited Beam’s authority to do so.

“It is completely disingenuous for him to flip-flop now when he didn’t like the choices school districts made,” Corman said 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.”

House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, said Wolf’s decision is “the correct one” that will keep kids safe and schools and day cares open, “which is essential to so many parents, workers and businesses all over Pennsylvania.”

“The virus is continuing to infect thousands of people and we need to take every reasonable step to stop its spread, particularly among our youngest children who cannot be vaccinated,” she said. “This is a very reasonable step and I welcome it.”

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.