Republican leaders of the Pennsylvania Legislature have rejected Gov. Tom Wolf’s request to pass a mask mandate for schools and child care centers amid the state’s current surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Pennsylvania.
House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Peach Bottom, and Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre County, told Wolf on Thursday that most local leaders have already decided whether they need to implement a mask mandate in schools.
The lawmakers called Wolf’s request a “stark departure” from his previous position supporting local control over the issue.
“We believe that the current approach -- allowing local officials to manage and respond as needed -- makes the most sense and should be continued,” Cutler and Corman wrote in their letter to Wolf.
Wolf wrote to the lawmakers on Wednesday, asking that the Legislature return to Harrisburg and pass a mask mandate, noting that only 59 of 474 school districts that had submitted plans to the state as of July 30 implemented mandatory mask requirements. Coronavirus vaccines, meanwhile, are only available to people ages 12 and older, leaving masks and social distancing as the primary methods of protecting younger children.
Wolf has consistently said his administration would not enact a statewide mask mandate for schools, and insisted local districts should determine what is necessary for their communities. The Centers for Disease Control recommends all K-12 students wear masks throughout the school day to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
On Wednesday, Wolf broke with this position and asked lawmakers to take action -- instead of having his own secretary of health issue an order.
In recent weeks, Wolf said he’s become “increasingly concerned” about misinformation being spread about whether districts can implement masking requirements.
“Constituents, primarily parents of young children who are not able to be vaccinated, are very concerned about the lack of a mask mandate in their school district,” Wolf wrote to House and Senate leaders. “They report that their school districts are either refusing to implement them because of political pressure or false claims about their efficacy.”
Cutler and Corman said Wolf’s request is a reversal from his earlier support for local discretion, and that a statewide mask mandate would be unwarranted at this time. Instead, the top Republicans asked Wolf to sort COVID-19 data by a person’s vaccination status to help districts determine “threat levels” in their regions.
The lawmakers also emphasized the majority of people hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, and should already be wearing masks, per CDC recommendations.
“The rise in new cases within the state and across the country is a clear reminder that we must always be vigilant,” Cutler and Corman wrote. “However, the impact is not equal everywhere. This is why we continue to believe it is the best interest of local communities and their healthcare leaders to make their own mitigation decisions.”
Local lawmakers like Sens. Scott Martin, R-Martic Township, and Ryan Aument, R-West Hempfield Township, posted on their social media accounts that they both support local control over mask mandates. Martin, as chair of the Senate education committee, has previously questioned whether local districts had the authority to enact mask mandates.
In response to the lawmakers’ letter, Wolf’s spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said Wolf is disappointed in their unwillingness to pass a mandate and “quick action is often what is needed during times of emergency when conditions change. Kensinger did not say Wolf plans to act on his own at this time, and again repeated that the administration hopes the lawmakers will return to Harrisburg soon to address the rise in cases to keep kids in school and parents at work.