Education and health groups asked for the new mask mandate for Pennsylvania schools

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Aug. 31—A day after nearly 50 education and health organizations are asked Pennsylvania officials to implement a mandate requiring the wearing of masks in schools, their request was granted.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced Tuesday that a new order requiring universal mask wearing in schools, early learning centers and child care centers would go into effect on Sept. 7.

On Monday, the organizations sent letters to Wolf, Education Secretary Noe Ortega and acting Health Secretary Alison Beam, as well Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and House Speaker Bryan Cutler.

The letters urge "swift action to ensure safe learning environments for students during the pandemic." In particular, the groups ask the state to take the steps needed to create a universal, statewide mask mandate for all public schools to ensure schools can provide safe, uninterrupted in-person learning.

A statewide mask mandate for public, indoor spaces meant that masks were required inside schools last school year. However, that order expired in late June, and the state has not reinstituted any sort of mask mandate for the start of the 2021-22 school year.

The governor recently brought up the idea of a new school mask mandate, asking the Legislature to act.

The letters sent Monday to Wolf, Ortega and Beam applaud a move by the governor last week to send a letter to Republican leadership calling on the General Assembly to pass legislation requiring masks in schools. That request was shot down.

In light of that rejection, the groups asked the administration to issue a directive ordering mask wearing by all students and staff while inside school buildings.

"Masks have been proven to be very effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19 in general, and in schools in particular," the letter reads, citing various scientific studies. "We believe that issuing an explicit directive requiring schools to mandate masks is essential to ensuring the health and safety of all our students, teachers, parents, school staff and communities."

The letter also says that a mask mandate is needed to ensure the "widening disparities in educational opportunities" suffered by students of color, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities are not exacerbated.

The letter goes on to cite the legal basis by which the groups believe a mask mandate can be issued.

"Specifically, the secretary of health possesses emergency authority to undertake any disease control measure appropriate to protect the public from the spread of infectious disease," it reads in part.

The administration is urged to act regardless of the Legislature's reticence to impose a mask requirement.

"While we support your efforts to work with the General Assembly, we believe your administration has the authority to impose this mandate and urge you to do so if the legislature fails to take action to protect our children," it reads. "The time is now."

The letters to Corman and Cutler are similar to the version sent to members of the administration, stating the reasoning for the mask mandate request and citing the legal basis for one. It asks the Legislature to not block such a mandate.

"We are also aware that the administration has sufficient authority to take such action under the Public Health Code and urge you not to interfere with this authority if you are unable to pass legislation," it reads.

The letter-writing effort was led by the Education Law Center, a legal advocacy organization focused on education in Pennsylvania.

Despite the lack of a statewide mandate, two-thirds of Berks County school districts have imposed some level of mask requirement to start the school year.

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