After a summer full of contentious debate over whether to require masks in Lancaster County schools, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf hit the reset button Tuesday, announcing masks are once again required in public and private schools, as well as day care centers, throughout the state.
Not surprisingly, the reception in Lancaster County, where the majority of school districts opted to enter the 2021-22 school year with masks optional, was mixed.
Some parents were relieved the governor took the initiative to protect children during a pandemic that’s getting worse by the week, while others expressed frustration over Wolf’s decision to take back control after promising the choice to mask would be up to local school boards and families.
Meanwhile, administrators and school board members are left trying to figure out where they go from here.
“The governor, he threw a curveball at us,” Penn Manor school board President Herk Rintz said.
Penn Manor is one of 14 county school districts that began the school year with masks optional. According to its health and safety plan, the district will adhere to state mandates.
Both Rintz and district Superintendent Mike Leichliter said the district will follow the order. It’s unclear if any districts will oppose it, as different solicitors may have different interpretations of how the order, issued by Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam, should be enforced.
The order is sure to attract legislative and legal challenges in the days and weeks ahead.
Under the state’s Disease Prevention and Control Law, the state Department of Health may take appropriate measures to protect the public from infectious disease. Those who don’t abide by the order, the law states, may be subject to fines or imprisonment.
“Everybody’s got to understand that there’s probably some teeth in this right now,” Rintz said.
The order goes into effect Sept. 7, after Labor Day, and applies to all students, faculty, staff and visitors inside Pennsylvania schools and day care centers, with few exceptions. There is no termination date set, but the Wolf administration is expected to revisit it in about a month.
The announcement came as a disappointment for families who were looking forward to a more normal school year, without masks and other COVID-19 mitigation measures.
Tannia Carpenter’s second-grade son struggled with wearing a mask last school year, particularly while reading, as he couldn’t understand the teacher well or read lips. He needed a reading specialist and a tutor over the summer so he wouldn’t get further behind.
“Our children’s health and psychological well-being are not worth the cost” of mask-wearing, said Carpenter, 46, of Lititz.
Parent Cindy Wivell, of Elizabethtown, said she was sad about Wolf’s mandate because she thinks it interferes with students’ ability to connect with one another.
“I would like things that create more anxiety to become less, not become more,” said Wivell, 49. “I think the masks perpetuate that feeling of fear, and I think it can increase anxiety.”
Plus, many students wear their masks improperly, and that might put into question how effective a school mask requirement really is, she said.
Dr. Heidi Kistler, a mother and a physician with Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, believes in the efficacy of masks. She’s seen it firsthand at the hospitals in which she works, where masked doctors rarely, if ever, get sick from their patients. With that in mind, she said requiring masks in schools is the best way to protect children, especially those who are not yet eligible for vaccination, and to preserve in-person learning, she said.
“I view masking as their best hope of having a somewhat normal school year in person,” said Kistler, a 45-year-old mother from East Hempfield Township. “And I was frustrated that that was not being required of everyone.”
Knowing her two daughters will now have an extra layer of protection gives Ephrata mom Suzy Wurtz a huge sense of relief.
Like Kistler, Wurtz said she’s been lobbying for her school board to require masks, but a requirement never came.
“It takes a lot of guts to do the right thing when there are incredibly passionate, angry people,” Wurtz, 33, said of the governor, adding that Lancaster County leaders “didn’t step up to protect our economy, to protect our schools.”
Many teachers, too, approve of Wolf’s announcement.
“The only way to protect unvaccinated children from this disease is by wearing masks,” Conestoga Valley Education Association President Tara Flick said.
Flick urged the community to put their differences aside and support the mandate.
“If you think it’s about freedom of choice, please remember that this choice can directly and tragically affect someone else’s life,” she said. “Let’s work together to put an end to this pandemic.”
The timing of the governor’s announcement — less than two weeks since the first Lancaster County schools started the school year — wasn’t ideal for some. Wolf on Tuesday admitted that a mandate could have come sooner.
Up until Tuesday, Wolf claimed a mask mandate was not coming, insisting local control would remain in place. Last week, he asked legislative leaders to return to Harrisburg and pass a school mask mandate, a request that was swiftly rejected by Republican leadership.
“Certainly this being our second day of school, we would’ve liked different timing on this announcement,” Ephrata Area School District Superintendent Brian Troop said.
Troop said he doesn’t see the district having much of a choice in abiding by the order.
Before the order, Columbia, Lancaster and Manheim Township school districts were the only ones in the county to require masks, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health recommended.
School board meetings got heated, at times, over the summer. If the governor made this announcement earlier, perhaps that could have been avoided.
“Of course while it could’ve been helpful to have a mandate sooner, I still think it was healthy for our school district to debate the topic,” Manheim Township school board President Nikki Rivera said.