Pennsylvania Leaders Grapple Over Authority to Require Masks in Schools

By Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Reporter
Beth Brelje is an investigative journalist covering Pennsylvania politics, courts, and the commonwealth’s most interesting and sometimes hidden news. Send her your story ideas:
August 7, 2021 Updated: August 7, 2021

With just weeks left before the start of the new school year, the rules surrounding masking Pennsylvania’s K-12 students are still unclear.

Masking was the main topic Friday during a well-attended hearing about COVID-19 school policies held in Harrisburg by the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee.

Committee members and most of the audience—members of the public mostly opposing masking children—were without masks, but the panel of three state officials being questioned wore masks, even while speaking. They were: acting Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Alison Beam, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Noe Ortega, and acting Education Deputy Secretary Sherri Smith.

The Department of Education’s recommendation to schools is for full, in-person instruction, Smith said. No school district has announced plans for remote learning, but some parents have requested remote learning as an option for their children, she said.

The in-person recommendation from the departments of health and education is coupled with another recommendation: for schools to follow guidance from the Center for Disease Control that includes social distancing, and for all students, vaccinated or not, to wear a mask in school.

State Senate Education Committee Chair Scott Martin, a Republican, questioned who can ultimately make the decision on masks.

“Under what constitutional or statutory authority does a school board or local government or even a state government have to impose various restrictions or orders if there is not a current emergency declaration and no order related to the secretary of health?” Martin asked. “Where are those powers grounded, for a local school board to impose such restrictions?”

Beam said the Health Department is not considering a statewide masking mandate at this time so the department is pointing to the CDC guidance for universal masking for k-12.

“Each of those school districts would then have the option of imposing a masking mandate under their authorities,” Beam said.

Ortega added that they would have to check with the Department of Education’s legal team to see if the legal means exist at the school level to impose mask mandates.

Martin said his office researched the matter and they could find no authority for schools in normal circumstances to impose such restrictions.

“What it sounds like right now is they are leaving it up to school boards on how to handle COVID in schools,” Martin told The Epoch Times. “The most important place for parents to make their thoughts known right now is at school board meetings.”

Many schools plan to be fully open with no masking this year, but some Pennsylvania schools have already informed parents that they plan to require masking for all students.

Martin wondered if parents would have to take some school districts to court to end masking requirements.

The hearing also revealed that the Department of Education plans to provide COVID-19 testing services for schools. It would be voluntary and be of no cost to schools.

Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Reporter
Beth Brelje is an investigative journalist covering Pennsylvania politics, courts, and the commonwealth’s most interesting and sometimes hidden news. Send her your story ideas: