A day after taking office, Erie County Executive Brenton Davis broke from his predecessor by lifting the countywide mask mandate for public and private schools.
In a Facebook video posted Jan. 9, he explained why.
"We're not going to be an enforcement agency," said Davis, who spoke from his desk in the Erie County Courthouse. "We're not going to be a punitive agency. That is not the goal of my administration moving forward."
Davis, who appeared to film the video himself, described how the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the statewide school mask mandate in December. The ruling was based largely on procedural grounds, namely that the Gov. Tom Wolf administration had imposed the mandate in the absence of an emergency declaration or legislative consent.
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Davis, a Republican, said it was unclear whether the county Health Department had the authority to impose the school mask mandate in the wake of the ruling. He said he lifted the mandate to avoid potential lawsuits against the county.
"I, as the duly elected county executive, have a responsibility to not only protect the public but to protect the taxpayers from unnecessary lawsuits, costs and just workload that's going to be placed on our legal staff, our Health Department, above and beyond what already goes on," he said.
The countywide school mask mandate, which was imposed on Aug. 23 by the Kathy Dahlkemper administration, has yet to face a legal challenge.
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Former County Solicitor Richard Perhacs, who worked in the Dahlkemper administration, said the Dahlkemper team was confident the school mask mandate was in accordance with Pennsylvania statute — and was a public health measure worth keeping.
"If the county never takes action on anything that's the least bit controversial — of course, you'll never get sued," Perhacs said. "But the question is: Is the policy worth defending? Is it worth adopting the policy and taking the chance that it might be challenged? You have to assess the risks versus the benefits."
So far, the risks have been clear.
Erie County's 14-day moving average of COVID-19 hospitalizations has spiked from 81.6 on Jan. 1 to 105.9 on Wednesday, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
While Erie hospitals continue to see few COVID-19 admissions among children, the county's number of cases among those 19 and younger nearly tripled the week of Dec. 29-Jan. 4.
County Solicitor Bill Speros, who was recently appointed by Davis, said the decision to lift the school mask mandate was more a policy decision than a question of legality.
"We're not making any statements regarding the legality of the county's ability to enforce or the legality of school districts to take their own safety and precaution measures within the school districts," he said. "We're simply, as a matter of policy, lifting the previously imposed public school mask mandate."
He added, "No one's in a better position to know what's best for their schools and their children, staff and administrations than the school boards and school administrations themselves."
School autonomy, parent choice
In his video, Davis said the removal of the school mask mandate will give schools the autonomy to employ their own COVID-19 safeguards and also give parents a "voice and a choice" on where and how their children should be taught.
"Maybe your choice is to homeschool kids because you don't want to mask them or you don't want to get vaccinated or you don't want them to get vaccinated," Davis said. "The choice might be to choose to use a private school that is unmasking kids. There's always a choice in society. It may not be the choice that you prefer. But there are plenty of choices."
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The comment caught some pushback from Facebook users, including Kellie Gilmore, a Millcreek Township resident, who replied to Davis' post that she shouldn't have to pay for a private school or for homeschooling just because she disagreed with her children's school mitigation efforts.
Gilmore, in an interview with the Erie Times-News, said she withdrew her two children from the Millcreek Township School District and enrolled them in a cyber-charter school because she felt the district's safety protocols were too restrictive.
While she agreed with the lifting of the countywide school mask mandate, she said Davis should have gone further and given parents the choice to protect their children as they see fit, as opposed to giving schools the ability to employ their own safeguards.
She said she'd prefer to have her children attend Millcreek schools because that's where her tax money goes.
"I agree everybody has a choice to pull their kids from the district but (Davis) is not thinking of the implications of what that would do to the public schooling system," Gilmore said.
In a statement, Erie School Board President Lori Pickens said public schools will continue to follow the guidance of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Current guidance recommends universal masking while indoors, regardless of vaccination status," she said in the statement. "We also will continue to require masking as we monitor the evolving situation and any new guidance that may be issued. We certainly respect that the county executive has a different approach.”
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Masks in schools: Erie County Executive Brenton Davis defends lifting mandate