Hempfield School District Superintendent Michael Bromirski speaks during a state Senate Education Committee hearing about the state Department of Health's order for all students and staff to wear masks in schools. (Screenshot) Michael Bromirski
Hempfield School District Superintendent Michael Bromirski speaks during a state Senate Education Committee hearing about the state Department of Health's order for all students and staff to wear masks in schools. (Screenshot)

Politics, not science, is driving the fight over masks in schools, with educators and administrators bearing the brunt of the fallout. School administrators say last year was easier because the emergency disaster declaration provided clear guidance.

School districts across the state started the year with smiling kids who were happy to be back and see their friends.

“Then a bomb went off in education in Pennsylvania,” said Barry Fillman, director of the Jefferson County-DuBois Area Vocational School. “Trapped between political ideals and a policy war, there has been a deluge of anger.”

Fillman and other school administrators spoke this week during a hearing of the state Senate Education Committee. The majority-GOP committee held the hearing to discuss the impact of the state mask mandate, which Republicans are trying to overturn.

Hempfield School District Superintendent Michael Bromirski said he agreed to speak not because of politics, and not to “debate the legality of the mask order.” 

He said he wants to “ensure that all students across Pennsylvania have the opportunity to remain in our schools for in-person learning.” 

To do this, Bromirski and other school administrators wanted to bring to light the issues they have encountered so far this year while addressing COVID mitigation efforts.

“Our communities are divided and faith in public education is diminishing,” Bromirski said.

Schools Caught in Political Tug-of-War

For the 2020-21 school year, an emergency disaster declaration was in place that provided a clear strategy and concrete direction for everyone to abide by, Bromirski said. 

In June, the state Legislature voted to immediately end the COVID emergency disaster declaration. The disaster declaration was formally terminated when the state certified primary election results; voters had approved a constitutional amendment that gave the Legislature the power to end an emergency disaster declaration. The majority-GOP state Legislature also refused to pass legislation requiring masks in schools or other public places. That left it to officials at each of the state’s 501 school districts to decide what to do.

School boards struggled with the decision, and faced angry parents, protests, and even some lawsuits.

Acting state Secretary of Health Alison Beam issued the masking order around the time school started for many districts. And Republicans have already challenged it in court. 

Without the emergency disaster declaration in place, COVID mitigation strategies have not been set in stone and much of it is up for debate and/or interpretation, Bromirski said.

“After being applauded for figuring out how to open our schools for in-person instruction, schools have become the new front line in the battle over mask wearing and other COVID mitigation efforts and it is simply not sustainable,” Bromirski said. “Instead of being supported, we are being blamed and threatened. From all sides.”

School Administrators Call for Help

Lack of communication and guidance from the state Department of Health has fueled the fire, Bromirski said.

The current mask order conflicts with the FAQ and emails school districts received from the state, Bromirski said. Oftentimes, Bromirski said, administrators receive emails late on a Friday afternoon with things the school must do, but with no instructions on how to do them. 

So far this year, Hempfield School District has submitted 50 COVID case reports to the state Department of Health. Bromirski said a department nurse or epidemiology associate contacted schools for just about every case last year. This year, he said, he has talked to a nurse from the state Department of Health only twice. 

Despite state health officials saying they would provide direct communication, parents are not hearing from them. They are not issuing legally binding quarantine orders, Bromirski said. Some districts have reported that a few parents received an automated call from the state, but the message provided little to no important information.

Neither Beam nor Department of Education Secretary Noe Ortega attended the public hearing due to the pending litigation filed by Republican members of the state Legislature and some families. They submitted written testimony, which simply addressed why a mask mandate was implemented and didn’t discuss what guidance or support was being provided to school districts.

School Administrators Struggle to Enforce Mask Orders

The state is threatening school officials with loss of funding, personal liability, jail time, and hefty fines if they do not follow the masking order, Bromirski said. 

Angry parents are showing up at the school and at board meetings to voice their concerns, Fillman said. They are pulling their children out of public school for alternative education.

Some have even made calls to Children and Youth Services claiming child abuse if teachers don’t allow students to take their masks off, Bromirski said.

Teachers are reaching their breaking point, Fillman said, adding to the already increasing teacher and staff shortages.

Many administrators are worried about the long-term, adverse effects the current climate will have on public education in Pennsylvania, Bromirski said. “Everyone is emotionally charged on this issue and it’s creating a safety issue in our schools,” he said. “And our students are being put in the middle of all of this.”

Why Pennsylvania Requires Masks in Schools

State health officials have recorded a total of 1,402,826 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. As of Thursday, 29,064 Pennsylvanians have died from COVID-19 or related illness.

Currently, 2,641 individuals are hospitalized with COVID-19; 662 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 12.2 times higher than at this time last year. 

Between Sept. 15 and Sept. 21, 2020, there were a total of 650 cases in children between the ages of 5 and 18. For that same time frame in 2021, there were 7,928 cases.

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

COVID has killed more children in one year than the flu did in the past three years. Two children died from the flu during the 2018-19 season, one died during the 2019-20 season, and no deaths were recorded for the 2020-21 season.