At least 11 Lancaster County school districts have announced a return to mask-optional policies following a Commonwealth Court decision on Wednesday voiding the state acting secretary of health’s order requiring students, employees and visitors to wear masks while inside school buildings.
Conestoga Valley, Donegal, Elizabethtown Area, Ephrata Area, Hempfield, Lampeter-Strasburg, Manheim Central, Penn Manor, Pequea Valley, Solanco and Warwick school district administrators during a frenetic Wednesday afternoon shared that they are returning to the mask-optional policy outlined in their original board-approved health and safety plans immediately.
Eastern Lancaster County School District is already essentially mask-optional, as it has allowed parents to opt their children out of the mask requirement without a doctor's signature.
It’s unclear how the county’s other school districts — including Octorara Area, which is in both Chester and Lancaster counties — will respond to the court’s decision. Complicating matters is an appeal filed with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by the state health department late Wednesday, which would keep the school mask order in place, according to the state.
"The Secretary of Health's authority is clearly outlined in existing law," state Department of Health spokesperson said in an email Wednesday afternoon. "An appeal has been filed. Filing of the appeal immediately stays the Commonwealth Court’s decision."
Schools have been notified of the appeal, the spokesperson said.
Filing a notice of appeal with the state Supreme Court does not guarantee the court will overturn the decision.
Late into the day Wednesday, no communication came from the state health or education departments telling school districts what they should do, letting confusion among school officials fester throughout the day.
Brian Barnhart, the executive director of the Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13, said absent state guidance, Thursday could be the “wild wild west” in terms of masking. Barnhart spoke with LNP | LancasterOnline before the state announced its appeal.
Three county school districts — Columbia Borough, Manheim Township and School District of Lancaster — had mask requirements in place before the state issued its order in the fall, when COVID-19 cases were climbing at an alarming rate and children ages 5 to 11 were not eligible for vaccination, as they are now.
School District of Lancaster spokesman Adam Aurand said the district's approach to masks has been guided by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, which still include universal masking inside schools. The Lancaster school board has not discussed modifying its protocols, Aurand said.
The mask policy update Hempfield posted on its website detailing its return to a mask-optional stance acknowledged that there may be questions regarding the court decision and asked for patience as the district reviews new information.
Penn Manor's update said while masks are optional now, the court decision may be appealed, and new information will be shared "when it becomes available."
Conestoga Valley Superintendent Dave Zuilkoski shared a similar message in his update.
"Much to my chagrin, and just so no one is caught off-guard, it is also my understanding that we may not have heard the last of the mask issue," he wrote. "There may be an appeal by the Governor of the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. We will continue to share information as it becomes available."
The Commonwealth Court ruling comes just over a month after state Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam’s school mask order went into effect statewide, sparking contentious debates over masks and state mandates at school board meetings in Lancaster County and beyond.
It also prompted two legal challenges, one from state Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, a Republican. In weighing those challenges, the court majority on Wednesday reached the conclusion that Beam did not have the constitutional authority to issue such an order.
Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon, a Republican, wrote the majority ruling. She said because Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf did not have a disaster emergency proclamation in effect, Beam’s measure was unenforceable.
The state’s disease control law, upon which the order was based, does not give health secretaries “the blanket authority to create new rules and regulations out of whole cloth, provided they are related in some way to the control of disease or can otherwise be characterized as disease control measures,” Fizzano Cannon wrote.
The judges “express herein no opinion regarding the science or efficacy of mask-wearing or the politics underlying the considerable controversy the subject continues to engender," she added.
The opinion didn't address whether schools can adopt mask requirements of their own. The Wolf administration planned to lift the school mask order and allow school boards to choose whether to require masks beginning Jan. 17, 2022.
The court's decision does not impact the federal mandate that masks be worn on public transportation, which includes school buses.