HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Pennsylvania school districts will be allowed to amend or end their mask-wearing policy for K-12 students in January, Governor Tom Wolf announced Monday, saying it was “the time to do this.” prepare for the transition back to the normal setting. ”

The Democratic governor said that on January 17 he expected to hand over the decision on mask wearing to local school officials. The state’s universal mask requirement for early school programs and child care facilities will still apply.

The Wolf Administration imposes a statewide mandate in early September amid an increase in infections and hospitalizations due to the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus. The order from Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam requires students, staff, and visitors at K-12 schools and child care facilities to wear masks while indoors, regardless of immunization status. The mission caused a backlash among some parents, and two lawsuits seeking to overturn it are pending.

The decision to end the statewide mask order comes days after federal officials approved a COVID-19 vaccine for younger children.

“We are in a different place now than we were in September, and it is time to prepare for the transition back to a more normal setting,” Wolf said in a statement issued by his office. show. “Unfortunately, the COVID-19 virus is now part of our daily lives, but with the knowledge we have gained over the past 20 months and important tools like vaccines at our disposal we have to take the next step in the recovery process. ”

The regulator did not say whether the change in public health status could prevent Wolf from ceding decisions about mask wearing to school districts.

Wolf press secretary Beth Rementer said in an email.

In a note to school districts, Education Secretary Noe Ortega said Monday his department will provide “clarification guidance” in the coming weeks.

House Education Chair Curt Sonney, R-Erie, said Wolf’s decision was “taking time”. House Republican caucus spokesman Jason Gottesman said local choice for masks should be authorized immediately, adding that local decision-making has been controversial. but effective before the task is applied.

“Today’s decision will have the unfortunate effect of forcing locally elected leaders, many of them newly elected, into a situation of trying to downplay decisions that have already been made,” Gottesman said. out this.

Leonard Rich, superintendent of the Laurel School District in Lawrence County, said his school district will choose to wear masks as soon as the statewide mandate is lifted. He said coronavirus cases in his small district remained low even though students wearing face masks were still few.

“I think schools are going to drop these mandates pretty quickly, and I think January 17 is about five months too late to bring it back to a local decision,” he said.

Wolf previously swore that wearing a mask would remain a local decision, but reversed course in late summer. He then said that a statewide order was secured after nearly 90% of the state’s 500 counties failed to impose their own mask requirements. for schools.

Two pending lawsuits insists the Wolf administration has no legal right to impose the masking mandate. The plaintiffs – among them the top leader of the state Senate, Pro Tempore President Jake Corman, R-Center – include parents who argue that masks interfere with their child’s breathing and cause problems other topic. The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania heard the arguments in the clothes last month but still no rules.

Despite many Republican lawmakers who are opposing the mask mandate, the GOP Majority Legislature has failed to pass legislation to turn it upside down.

Schools have largely reverted to providing face-to-face instruction. Despite the widespread face covering order, more school-age children have contracted the coronavirus this school year than last year, when many schools taught remotely or used a hybrid model. According to the state Department of Health, nearly 5,000 children aged 5-18 contracted the virus in the week ending November 2, nearly three times more than in the same week in 2020.

One large teachers union, AFT Pennsylvania, said it was concerned that most school districts would quickly drop the practice of wearing masks. Although densely populated school districts like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Allentown intended to require students to wear masks when the statewide order was enacted in August, they were still in a small minority. .

“We’re almost out of the woods; Arthur G. Steinberg, president of AFT Pennsylvania, said sending the decision back to the irresponsibly, politically motivated school board will only prolong this pandemic and expose children, educators and educators alike. Their families are in danger,” said Arthur G. Steinberg, president of AFT Pennsylvania.

But the state’s largest school staff association, the Pennsylvania School Employees Association, said Wolf’s announcement was consistent with its view that school districts should follow the advice of medical professionals. PSEA spokesman Chris Lilienthal said it “makes sense to start planning for a return to a higher normal,” given the recent drop in COVID-19 cases among children of this age. school attendance and the availability of vaccines.

Kaylyn Mitchell, outgoing president of the Quakertown Community School Board outside Philadelphia, said the statewide mask order has created unnecessary division in school districts. Mitchell, an independent who occasionally switches party registrations to vote in the Democratic primaries, said she knows parents of all political camps are concerned about the long-term impact of wearing masks on their children.

Beam’s face covering order said school officials who fail to enforce the order could face criminal penalties and possibly lose immunity from civil lawsuits.

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