Teacher Tara Matise exercise with her prekindergarten students participating virtually in her classroom ahead of planned in-person learning at Nebinger Elementary School in Philadelphia, Friday, March 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) Classroom mask mandate
Teacher Tara Matise exercise with her prekindergarten students participating virtually in her classroom ahead of planned in-person learning at Nebinger Elementary School in Philadelphia, Friday, March 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Gov. Tom Wolf wants lawmakers back in Harrisburg immediately to work on a bill to order schools and child care facilities to require masks in classrooms.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania schools need a statewide requirement that students in classrooms wear masks as protection against the coronavirus, the Democratic governor wrote in a letter Wednesday to legislative leaders.

Gov. Tom Wolf asked Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) and House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) to call lawmakers back to Harrisburg immediately to work on a bill to order schools and child care facilities to require masks in classrooms.

Concerned parents, pediatricians, teachers and others have been urging state officials for such a mandate, Wolf said. Under a constitutional amendment that GOP lawmakers pushed onto the ballot earlier this year, which passed narrowly, the governor’s authority to respond to pandemics was severely curtailed.

Wolf’s letter said that at the end of July just 59 of 474 school district plans submitted to the Education Department mandated masks.

“It is clear that action is needed to ensure children are safe as they return to school,” Wolf said. 

Wolf told Cutler and Corman he has “become increasingly concerned about misinformation being spread to try to discredit a school district’s clear ability to implement masking” as well as “local control being usurped by the threat — implicit or explicit — of political consequences for making sound public health and education decisions.”

Messages seeking comment were left for Cutler and Corman. A spokesperson for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre) said the House GOP caucus was against voting on a statewide mask mandate.

“Just because there’s not a statewide mandate requiring people to wear masks doesn’t mean people don’t have the option to wear masks,” said Benninghoff spokesperson Jason Gottesman.

Pennsylvania voters narrowly approved a statewide referendum in May that curbed a governor’s emergency powers. The constitutional amendments were proposed by Republican lawmakers angry over Wolf’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, including his orders shuttering businesses, sending students home for online schooling and ordering masks worn outside the home.

But Wolf — who largely had lifted his orders before the referendum — has maintained that the referendum did not limit his authority to issue orders designed to prevent COVID-19 from spreading, such as shutdowns or masking restrictions. Those rest on separate public health law, his administration has said.

“My administration will continue to monitor the situation, communicate and work with the General Assembly and take actions as needed to keep our children safe, and in the classroom,” Wolf said in the letter.

Pennsylvania’s two statewide teachers unions last week urged K-12 schools to require masks in school buildings, citing the threat of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks in schools for students, staff and teachers.

But masking has become a contentious and politicized issue, with heated debate taking place at the local level as school boards decide what their policy will be as schools reopen for the fall. Some Pennsylvania districts said they will require masks, including urban school districts in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Erie, Allentown and Bethlehem, but many others have decided to make them optional.