In a reversal to guidance related to a mask-wearing order in July, the Pennsylvania Department of Health is requiring students to wear masks "at all times" while in school, with few exceptions, even if they are able to maintain 6 feet of social distance.
The announcement to school leaders came Monday, following updated guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics in which the group "strongly" endorsed universal mask use to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
Guidance related to the mandate, issued by Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine on July 1, previously included an exception for mask-wearing as long as students were situated six feet apart.
This latest guidance, however, clarified in what situations masks must be worn.
The order applies to children older than 2 years old as well as adults, except for those with medical and mental health conditions or disabilities that preclude them from wearing masks. Students may remove their masks only if they are eating or drinking while maintaining 6 feet of social distance.
Schools may incorporate "face-covering breaks" throughout the day with appropriate social distancing, but the state says they should last no more than 10 minutes.
Pennsylvania House Republicans, who have been critical of Gov. Tom Wolf's administration throughout the pandemic, said Tuesday that the updated mandate causes "unnecessary confusion" for school officials.
“While children and educators should feel free to wear a mask if they feel it is appropriate for their own safety or the safety of others, the statewide, unilateral mandate that students wear masks at all times while in school is another last-minute impediment to schools finalizing their reopening plans and goes against the principle of local control over school reopening that Gov. Wolf has touted for months," state House Republican Caucus spokesperson Jason Gottesman said in a statement.
Clarification: A previous headline to this article referred to a "revised order" from the state Department of Health. The state updated its guidance related to the order, not the order itself.