PENNLIVE — The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on Tuesday reinstated the Gov. Tom Wolf administration mandate requiring students, teachers and staff to wear face masks.
The action is temporary, with the court scheduled to hear arguments on the matter on Dec. 8 and decide its fate. The court noted it has taken no position; one justice disagreed with reinstating the mandate.
Acting state Secretary of Health Alison Beam, at the direction of the governor, had imposed the statewide mandate at the start of the school year after most school districts failed to adopt policies mandating masks and the General Assembly refused the governor’s request to return to session to pass a mask mandate.
Parents in many school districts filled school board meetings to oppose the mask mandate. That led Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre County, along with other legislative and school officials, to file the lawsuit challenging Beam’s authority under the state’s Disease Prevention and Control Law to issue the order. In the lawsuit, Corman claimed she overstepped that authority in issuing the order.
The Commonwealth Court shot down the mandate earlier this month and ordered the mandate to be lifted on Dec. 4. The Wolf administration appealed, which is now the matter before the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, on Nov. 8, Wolf announced that school districts will be allowed to modify or end the mask mandate for K-12 students on Jan. 17.
He said it is “time to prepare for a transition back to a more normal setting.”
Education Secretary Noe Ortega said on Tuesday prior to the Supreme Court’s order that he believes returning the decision about masking to local school officials in January is the right move.
With the increased knowledge about how the virus is transmitted, rising vaccination rates, access to vaccines for most school-age students, and other mitigation efforts in place, Ortega said, “The optimist in me believes school leaders are in a position to make good choices for their students.”
Ortega shared his thoughts about school masking during a visit to Cumberland Valley School District’s 9th Grade Academy that opened this fall. The academy serves to help prepare ninth-graders for their high school years. He came away from the visit impressed with the concept and mitigation efforts the district has taken to keep students safe.
Going forward, he expressed confidence that local school officials will make decisions about what’s the best environment to create for their students to continue in-person learning to the extent possible.
“If anything, the pandemic has taught us lessons of what it’s like to live in an unpredictable environment that’s full of ambiguity,” he said. “We have to keep adapting.”
Staff writer Jan Murphy contributed to this story.