Multi-pronged attack on school mask mandates

By CHARLES PETERSHEIM
Posted 11/14/21

MILFORD, PA — Pennsylvania state mask mandates for public schools are currently being challenged on multiple fronts with school boards, parent groups, lawmakers and the courts acting to …

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Multi-pronged attack on school mask mandates

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MILFORD, PA — Pennsylvania state mask mandates for public schools are currently being challenged on multiple fronts with school boards, parent groups, lawmakers and the courts acting to restrict and restrain the wide and controversial latitude given the state since the beginning of the pandemic.

DVSB wins first round

Locally, on November 11, a federal judge cast doubt on the case filed by five anonymous plaintiffs against the Delaware Valley School District (DVSD) and its board of education for their new mask exemption policy that did not require medical certification, refusing to extend an injunction that forced stricter masking policies than those currently approved by the school board while the case wends its way through the courts.

A cornerstone of the judge’s decision cited the school board’s original position that the August 31 Pennsylvania Department of Health’s (DOH) order mandating masks did not require medical certification, and the “PA Department of Health never sought to clarify or provide guidance.”

The opinion of Judge Robert D. Mariani of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania stated “there is not an insubstantial question as to whether the school board resolution is a surreptitious attempt to circumvent the intentions and spirit of the PA DOH order. But this court cannot read into the DOH order what is not there….  Nor is it within the province of this court to question the true motivations of the school board members.”

In the decision, the judge wrote that the school district can reject exemption applications on a case-by-case basis, and that parents are “subject to the penalties relating to unsworn falsification to authorities.” The judge’s inclination to allow that the district intends to investigate false statements or reject individual applications is not supported by the evidence from September 28 to October 20, when the policy first went into effect. Exemptions increased from 18 to 630, according the lawsuit, with no reports of administration-led exemption denials. Local social media is filled with comments and posts celebrating the end of masking.

Commonwealth judge strikes down mask mandate

Statewide, ruling that acting PA Department of Health Secretary Alison Beam didn’t have the authority to issue masking orders in “the absence of a declared emergency,” Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court declared the mandate void on November 9, returning the masking decisions to the local school boards. The state immediately appealed, an appeal unlikely to be heard prior to the state’s retraction of the masking order set for January 17, 2022. The masking orders were issued as the Delta variant spread, and were met with vocal challenges that have disrupted a return to routine at schools across the state as the mask mandate controversy raged and evolved.

Governor unmasks schools

Also on November 9, stating “it is time to prepare for a transition back to a more normal setting,” Gov. Tom Wolf announced that K-12 school masking decisions will return to local leaders on January 17, 2022.

“Unfortunately, COVID-19 virus is now a part of our daily lives, but with the knowledge we’ve gained... and critical tools like the vaccine at our disposal, we must take the next step forward in our recovery.”

Wolf strongly encourages parents to “take safety measures to protect your children and your family—like getting vaccinated.”

Wolf’s masking policies are being challenged across the state by the state legislature and a diverse group of parents and school boards.

Over 72 percent of PA adults are fully vaccinated. In Pike County, 25,662 people (45.9 percent) are fully vaccinated according to the state DOH; in Wayne, 26,242 (51 percent) are fully vaccinated.

DVSD’s COVID-19 cases are averaging roughly 100 per month with or without the masking mandate in place, according to the DVSD website. COVID-19 fatigue appears to be laying an invisible hand on the scales of mandates, with courts, school boards and parents increasingly opting to expand their risk tolerance and to push their communities back to normal.

Click here for a timeline with links to the orders and court decisions.

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