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Senators introduce mask opt-out for Pennsylvania schoolchildren

(By Christen Smith – The Center Square) – Two Pennsylvania senators introduced a bill last week offering parents a chance to opt out of public school mask mandates.

Senate Bill 846 came just days before the Department of Health ordered universal masking for staff and students in schools and child care centers amid what the administration calls an alarming rise in COVID-19 cases in children caused by the delta variant.

The administration’s reversal on the issue – after months of deferring to local school boards on the policy – came under immediate scrutiny from Republican lawmakers, co-sponsors Sens. Judy Ward, R-Hollidaysburg, and Doug Mastriano, R-Gettysburg, among the loudest critics of them all.

“[The] announcement is hardly surprising,” Mastriano said. “Once most school districts rejected mask mandates … Governor Wolf quickly changed his position when those officials made a decision that he didn’t like.”

The administration said last week that fewer than 13% of the 474 submitted health plans required masks for unvaccinated students and staff. Immunization rates among kids between the ages of 12-14 and 15-19 are 18.2% and 38.3%, respectively, the department said.

Ward said school boards “worked hard” to develop mitigation strategies that worked for their communities. Many parents in her district worry about the impact of wearing masks long-term on their children, she added.

“Parents have the fundamental right to make health and educational decisions that are best suited for their children,” she said. “The circumstances and issues in each of those local communities should drive the decisions there, not a statewide mandate.”

Mastriano also questioned the science behind masking and said federal studies show there’s no “statistically significant” difference in transmission whether students cover their faces all day or not.

Wolf said “aggressive” anti-masking rhetoric nationwide and veiled legal threats explains why so many local school boards opted against the mandate, despite pleas from parents of younger children ineligible for the vaccine.

“The reality we are living in now is much different than it was just a month ago,” acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam said Tuesday. “With case counts increasing, the situation has reached the point that we need to take this action to protect our children, teachers and staff.”

Beam said 92% of current COVID-19 cases are caused by the delta variant. Since the beginning of July, Pennsylvania’s caseload skyrocketed from 300 daily to more than 3,000, with cases among schoolchildren climbing by more than 11,000 during that same time.

“That’s nearly a 300% jump [for school children] in about six weeks here in Pennsylvania, and remember that half of those kids are not yet old enough to get a vaccine,” Beam said. “The reason for this jump in cases is the delta variant.”

Children younger than 12 remain ineligible for the vaccine, while 65.8% of adults are fully immunized, according to the department. Pennsylvania also ranks fifth in the nation for total doses administered.

“The science is clear,” Beam said. “If we want to keep our schools open, maintain classroom learning and allow sports and other activities to continue, masking significantly increases our chances of doing so.”

Ward said the reversal isn’t shocking given Wolf’s veto of her bill in July that would have prevented the Secretary of Health from issuing statewide mandates using her limited authority within the state’s Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955. The administration’s interpretation of the statute gives Beam limited authority to implement orders during a public health event.

It’s why, even though voters agreed in May to limit the governor’s emergency powers that give him carte blanche to enact statewide pandemic restrictions, Beam can still do so. Ward said it’s now “obvious why” Wolf vetoed her bill.

“We saw this mandate coming and began to draft legislation weeks ago,” Mastriano said. “Parents and guardians need to make the choice as they know better than bureaucrats or anyone else what is best for individual needs of their child. I want to leave it in the hands of the parents. This bill will empower them to do that.”

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