Learning support teacher Sabrina Werley holds the bottle of hand sanitizer for a student at Cumru Elementary School in Berks County. (Reading Eagle Photo via Getty Images/ Ben Hasty) Masked Up at Cumru Elementary School
Learning support teacher Sabrina Werley holds the bottle of hand sanitizer for a student at Cumru Elementary School in Berks County. (Reading Eagle Photo via Getty Images/ Ben Hasty)

As coronavirus case numbers continue to climb, especially among school-aged children, Republicans want to end the mask requirement in schools and day cares.

While some Pennsylvania school districts have been forced to suspend in-person learning due to a growing number of COVID-19 cases, state lawmakers are headed back to Harrisburg to fight a state mask requirement that went into effect earlier this month.

Jason Gottesman, spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus, said the chamber reconvened after parents, families, and school administrators expressed concern over the new order.

“Putting forward a legislative response to that mandate is something we are planning to address to let them know their voices are being heard in Harrisburg,” he said.

So far, state GOP lawmakers have introduced two pieces of legislation to counter the mask requirement and allow school boards and parents the option of deciding whether to mask up or not.

The House and Senate returned to voting sessions on Monday.

Rising COVID-19 Cases in PA

State health officials have recorded a total of 1.38 million cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. As of Monday, 28,864 Pennsylvanians have died from COVID-19 or related illness.

Currently, 2,337 individuals are hospitalized with COVID; 589 of them are in the intensive care unit.

School-aged children are catching COVID-19 at higher rates than any other point in the pandemic.

The number of cases is 11.5 times greater this month than at the same time in 2020.

Between Sept. 8 and Sept. 14, 2020, there were a total of 630 cases in children between the ages of 5 and 18. For that same time frame in 2021, there were 7,218 cases.

Eight children have died from COVID-19 or related illness since the beginning of the pandemic, according to state health data.

The Mask Requirement Fight So Far

Originally, Gov. Tom Wolf said his administration would not require masks in schools, leaving the choices regarding COVID-related safety measures to be decided on the local level by each of the 501 school boards across the state. School boards struggled with the decision, and in some cases, faced lawsuits in response.

Wolf asked the majority-GOP state Legislature to pass legislation to require masks in schools, and leaders of both chambers refused. Acting state Secretary of Health Alison Beam then signed an order requiring masks inside all schools and childcare centers, citing an increase in cases as the reason. It went into effect Sept. 7 and remains in effect until terminated by the state. 

State Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) and other plaintiffs countered by filing a lawsuit seeking to overturn the order.

Just last week, the state House Health Committee, in a vote along party lines, asked for a regulatory review of the order, saying Beam does not have the authority to issue an order such as a mask requirement. 

Proposed Anti-Mask Legislation

Republicans in the House and the Senate have proposed two bills opposing masking in schools.

HB 1746, introduced by Rep. Barry Jozwiak (R-Berks), exempts schools from any masking order by the state Secretary of Health requiring universal face coverings. The exemption would apply to any renewal of the order.

“After disruptions in two consecutive school years, our students must focus on recovering from the adverse impacts of the pandemic,” Jozwiak said in a memo to House members. “Our students need to advance their education and development, and not worry about masking.”

The bill has been referred to the House Education Committee.

SB 846, introduced by Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Adams) and Sen. Judy Ward (R-Blair), would allow parents to opt their child out of having to comply with a school’s mask mandate.

The bill would require a school to create and post (on the school’s website) an “opt-out” form. Parents would not have to provide a reason for opting out.

The form must also clearly state that the student is not to be excluded or separated from classmates during school activities.

“We believe that parents and legal guardians have the fundamental right to make health and educational decisions that are best suited for their children,” Mastriano said in a memo.

The bill is currently in the Senate Education Committee.

Wolf would likely veto any bill that would overturn the school mask mandate. And the Legislature has not been able to come up with the two-thirds support to override the governor’s veto.