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Students leave during the dismissal at Smith-Wade-El Elementary School in Lancaster on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. The School District of Lancaster, Columbia Borough School District and Manheim Township School District mandated masks before the Pennsylvania Department of Health issued a universal mask order for K-12 schools and child care facilities on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021.

THE ISSUE

Citing Pennsylvania’s Disease Prevention and Control Law, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf announced a mask mandate Tuesday for all Pennsylvania K-12 private and public schools, as well as early learning and child care facilities. Universal masking in schools — that is, mask-wearing by students, staff and visitors, no matter their COVID-19 vaccination status — is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health. The LNP | LancasterOnline Editorial Board also has advocated for such a mandate. The statewide mask mandate takes effect Sept. 7, the day after Labor Day. The Wolf administration will review the order the first week of October to determine if it’s still needed.

Finally, Gov. Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Health have stepped up on behalf of the commonwealth’s children by mandating masks in schools and child care facilities.

The governor said he had hoped that local school boards would pass mandatory mask policies. But only three school boards, of the 17 public school districts serving Lancaster County students, did.

Wolf also gave the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature a chance to lead on this sensible public health measure, but its leaders declined.

In a letter to the governor last Thursday, state House Speaker Bryan Cutler, of Drumore Township, and state Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, of Centre County, asserted that “in many of our communities, local leaders have already made important decisions they believe are in the best interest of their residents and are prepared to adjust those decisions as challenges evolve.”

The italics are ours. Please note that they did not write “children” or “students.” In this word choice, they gave away their game — suggesting that they fear the reaction of anti-mask residents more than the effects of the highly contagious delta variant on schoolchildren.

We were disappointed by the Lancaster County school boards that failed to follow the recommendations of the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics and Lancaster General Health. We know the unpaid members of these boards faced enormous pressure from the loudest and angriest voices in their districts.

But state lawmakers are paid to do the right thing, to place the public good above narrow political interests. Alas, particularly when up for election, they rarely do it.

On this count, we are most disappointed by state Sen. Ryan Aument, of West Hempfield Township, who took to Twitter on Tuesday to complain that this editorial board was “elitist & condescending” for urging school officials to follow the advice of medical experts.

Aument has claimed that one of his political heroes is the late Robert F. Kennedy. Why, then, is he mimicking the anti-science behavior of RFK’s son and namesake instead?

So upset by the state Department of Health’s mandate was Aument that he said in a news release that he is talking to Senate colleagues about amending Pennsylvania’s Disease Prevention and Control Law to “ensure that local control and flexibility is preserved in this and future pandemics.”

That is, he wants to curtail the ability of state health officials to act according to data and science in a health crisis.

Aument’s tantrum is dangerous, not least because he’s not alone among lawmakers in wanting to diminish the power of health officials to make decisions during crises. State Sen. Scott Martin, of Martic Township, wants to similarly constrain the state health secretary.

Decisions in this and future pandemics must be informed by medical expertise. This position doesn’t make us “elitist & condescending.” It means we have common sense. Most people prefer to get their medical advice from physicians, not politicians.

At Tuesday’s news conference announcing the mask order, Dr. Trude Haecker, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that after vaccination, “masking is the next best defense” to keep children from getting sick with COVID-19 and in school. She noted that children under age 12 aren’t eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, “so it falls to us, their parents, their pediatricians, government officials to protect them.”

Emphasizing the need to keep schools open for the educational success and mental health of students, Haecker said schools need to embrace “a multilayered approach” to mitigating COVID-19 transmission that includes improved ventilation, virus testing and universal masking.

Minimizing disruption

In championing a mask mandate, this editorial board’s concerns are genuine. We are worried about the health of Lancaster County’s children. And for good reason.

School districts that opened in other states without mask requirements have seen hundreds of students test positive for COVID-19; some have had to switch to remote learning. Studies have shown that masks are essential to reducing COVID-19 transmission in schools.

We’ve been concerned, too, about the disruptions that quarantines and closures of schools and child care facilities would cause working families. We fervently want students to be able to remain in their classrooms and child care centers this school year. Mask requirements are a means to this end.

As Gov. Wolf said at the news conference Tuesday, “Doing nothing is going to mean more sick kids. It’s going to mean more days out of school.” When children get sick, it is “going to mean more grief for our communities,” he said. And when parents need to take off work to care for children infected or exposed to the virus, it’s going to mean “more problems for our economy.”

The mask mandate shouldn’t be controversial. But it is because masks have become tools in a culture war rather than weapons we have at our disposal to battle this cruelly persistent pandemic.

As we wrote Tuesday, the inconvenience of wearing masks is minimal when compared to the demonstrated importance of in-person learning, both to students’ academic performance and to their mental and emotional health. A risk-reward analysis of keeping more students in school for more in-person instructional days leads to the conclusion that a mask mandate is the best approach for this moment.

Clearly, Gov. Wolf and the state Department of Health made a similar analysis.

Reality of delta

While we wish this mandate took effect immediately rather than next week, we’re relieved that, finally, state officials had the courage to make the right call on behalf of Pennsylvania’s children.

As acting Health Secretary Alison Beam noted Tuesday, “the reality that we are living in now is extremely different than it was just one month ago.”

Pennsylvania now is seeing more than 3,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, compared to fewer than 300 per day in July. The number of COVID-19 cases among children 17 and under increased by 277% between mid-July and Aug. 28, overwhelmingly because of the delta variant.

More than 5,000 students in Pennsylvania already have tested positive for COVID-19 in the first days of the school year, Beam said.

The masking order, she noted, “is necessary and appropriate to protect children.” And she asked those who object to it to consider that last year, when there was this level of COVID-19 community transmission, students were learning virtually.

State Education Secretary Noe Ortega noted that schools represent more than just places where children learn, but are the places where essential services — including nutritious meals — are delivered to children. “We cannot let COVID-19 and the highly transmissible delta variant take these things away from our children,” Ortega said.

These things are true: The delta variant is a danger to our kids. And kids need to be in school. So better late than never for this state mask order.

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