The state Department of Health’s order requiring all Pennsylvanians to wear masks adds another twist to the already convoluted plot of reopening schools this fall.
The order, which also applies to students and school employees, was announced last week, as Lancaster County schools were in the thick of planning for the 2020-21 school year, with many opting to encourage, not require, mask-wearing.
Now, school leaders must consider how and when to enforce the new rule.
"While I understand the order, it threw yet another complication into the plans that have been developed," Penn Manor Superintendent Mike Leichliter said.
Penn Manor, which plans to unveil a draft health and safety plan later this month and approve it in early August, initially was going to stop short of requiring universal masks, but the state’s latest update supersedes that, Leichliter said.
School boards must approve reopening plans before their districts return to in-person instruction.
Evolving, conflicting guidance
The evolving, and at times conflicting, guidance can be difficult to navigate, Leichliter and other school officials said.
The state now requires students to wear masks if they can’t maintain six feet of social distance, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest guidance says students should wear masks and stay 6 feet apart "when feasible."
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently said three feet of social distancing may be enough, "particularly if students are wearing face coverings and are asymptomatic."
"I feel like that’s what we’re told today, but, again, that will evolve and change by the start of the school year," Cocalico Superintendent Ella Musser said of the evolving guidance.
How and when to enforce
On masks, Musser said various challenges face schools that may have to implement and enforce mask-wearing among all students.
The state’s mask order applies to all school employees and students, except those with disabilities who cannot wear a face covering.
Schools, Musser said, are put in a difficult position to enforce such a rule if the broader community views masks and their benefits differently. Students won’t be accustomed to wearing masks in certain areas, she said.
Then there’s making sure students use masks properly: "Are they wearing them correctly? Are they keeping it clean?" Musser said.
Another potential complication is the state’s vague language regarding exceptions to wearing masks, Hempfield Superintendent Mike Bromirski pointed out. The order says students don’t need to prove a disability before choosing not to wear a mask.
"Is that going to be used as kind of a catch all for anyone who doesn’t want to wear a mask?" he said.
Bromirski also expressed concern for those who don’t wear a mask for valid physical or mental health reasons but are judged for doing so.
"This is definitely going to have people make some personal decisions," he said.
More support needed
Besides more guidance on the mask order, school officials said they anticipate more support from the General Assembly before the school year begins. Among the topics on their minds: standardized testing, the 180-school day requirement, flexible instructional days and how to manage a temporary school closure if the virus enters their schools.
Penn Manor’s Leichliter said while the state has offered comprehensive guidance for businesses such as restaurants and bars, schools are in need of more support.
"I would really encourage our elected officials to prioritize a safe return of school," he said.