Lacey Henn

Masked second grade students sit in Lacey Henn's class at Eastern Lancaster County School District's Brecknock Elementary School on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020.

THE ISSUE

As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Colin Evans reported last week, “Weekly COVID-19 cases in Lancaster County ticked up again after four straight weeks of decline, reaching over 1,300 for the week of Nov. 7 to Nov. 13, according to data from the state Department of Health.” As of Wednesday, the rolling seven-day case average was about 201; hospitalizations were up to 107 as of Thursday. Most of the county residents hospitalized with COVID-19 are at Lancaster General Hospital. According to Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, there were 75 COVID-19 inpatients at LGH as of Friday. Fourteen were in intensive care; 13 of those 14 were unvaccinated. Eleven patients, all unvaccinated, were on ventilators.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over. The danger remains, especially for the many Lancaster County residents who remain unvaccinated or undervaccinated.

We worry for the unprotected, especially as the weather turns cold, windows close and fewer gatherings are held outside. We had hoped, desperately, that this pandemic would be behind us by Thanksgiving 2021. It is not.

And yet some act as if it is.

We understand pandemic fatigue; we battle it, too. We are weary of having to calculate risk as we plan holiday events and travel. We started to relax when it appeared that the highly transmissible delta variant was loosening its grip on Lancaster County. Last week’s uptick has us concerned again.

“Anytime we’re entering a winter season where people will be gathering indoors, especially over the holidays, we could see some bumps in the cases and hospitalizations that follow those gatherings, and those could persist throughout the winter,” Dr. Joseph Kontra, chief of infectious diseases at Lancaster General Hospital, told LNP | LancasterOnline recently.

Schools are another place where people gather. As temperatures drop, opportunities for outdoor play and instruction will diminish. School windows will need to close, too. This prospect would be less worrying if more children were vaccinated against COVID-19.

We’re glad vaccination now is available to younger children, but even the kids ages 5 to 11 who have gotten the Pfizer Bio-NTech COVID-19 vaccine only have gotten the first of two doses.

According to state data, fewer than 25,000 kids ages 5 to 19 in Lancaster County were either partially or fully vaccinated as of Thursday. Tens of thousands of Lancaster County kids are not protected against COVID-19.

And yet some districts across the county are tossing their mask requirements as if they were giddy graduates tossing their tasseled caps — with reckless, and we do mean reckless, abandon.

We do not understand the reasoning.

Well, we understand it, but we think it’s driven more by politics than medical knowledge.

Anti-masking forces

We understand, for instance, why Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman joined a lawsuit contesting the state Department of Health’s school mask order — he’s vying for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. And, having long been seen as a moderate Republican, he needs to prove his conservative credentials to his party’s base.

Other Republicans similarly have taken up the battle cries of anti-masking parents.

It is one of the great tragedies of this pandemic that proven strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have been treated not like the public health measures they are, but rather as political fodder. And that too many school officials have pandered to the loudest, angriest voices in their communities.

As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Alex Geli reported last week, “Most county school districts have decided to make masks optional instead of waiting for (the) resolution of a court battle over whether the state’s school mask order — which mandates students, employees and visitors wear masks inside school buildings — is valid.”

In a victory for Corman and his fellow anti-mask complainants, a Commonwealth Court judge said last week that the state school mask order must expire Dec. 4. But the legal wrangling over the order continues; we’ll get to the complexities of that in a bit.

It makes no sense to abandon masking before more children are vaccinated against COVID-19, and right as the weather is turning cold. We’re hoping that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will see the folly in the rush to discard masks and reinstate the Health Department’s order, which originally was to last until Jan. 17.

Unfortunately, the matter now will be decided by legal semantics, not science.

The politics of masking

Pennsylvania Republicans have been far more concerned with battling the Wolf administration’s COVID-19 measures, and far less concerned with battling the novel coronavirus. Hence their focus on the school mask order.

It is easy to say “no,” to oppose COVID-19 mitigation strategies. What is far harder is providing any data-driven alternative that would effectively reduce the incidence of COVID-19 infection and death.

We’ve been waiting for state Republicans to propose such an alternative.

Lacking any, they instead minimize the risks that children face, as if otherwise healthy kids can’t get seriously ill with COVID-19.

The reality is that they can. And even a mild COVID-19 infection can leave children, as well as adults, with lingering symptoms, which include cognitive issues that make concentration and learning difficult.

The science is clear. Masks are simple, inexpensive and effective tools in the fight against COVID-19. And the overwhelming majority of children wear them without drama or complaint.

Vaccination is an even better weapon in the fight against COVID-19. We’re waiting for Republican leaders to launch a full-court press to encourage Pennsylvania parents to get their children vaccinated against COVID-19 so schools can safely end mask-wearing.

But that would require some political courage.

County school districts

The situation in schools regarding masking has been confusing, to say the least.

As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Geli reported, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Nov. 8 that the mask order for K-12 schools would expire Jan. 17. “Two days later, the Commonwealth Court sided with a legal challenge to the masking order, declaring it unlawful and, therefore, unenforceable.”

Within hours of that court decision, some Lancaster County schools announced they no longer would require masks and would revert to mask-optional policies.

That same day, Geli continued, state Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam appealed the lower court’s decision, triggering a stay of the order, meaning it was once again valid. “Only a few county school districts that shifted back to mask-optional after the initial Commonwealth Court decision announced they would be following the order again,” he noted.

Subsequently, a request was filed with the Commonwealth Court to lift the stay until the state Supreme Court decides whether to hear the appeal. Late last Tuesday, the court granted that request and said the order must expire Dec. 4.

The upshot?

Unfortunately, as Geli reported, “only three school districts — Columbia Borough, Manheim Township and School District of Lancaster — appear to be sticking with a mask requirement, even after Dec. 4.”

We applaud the good judgment of the officials in those three districts. As Manheim Township board member Terrance Henderson (who lost his bid to remain on the school board) smartly put it, “The mask mandate is not the enemy. The pandemic is the enemy. The enemy is still here.”

Octorara Area School District has not decided whether it will require masks past Dec. 4, Geli reported. And the “other 13 county school districts are either currently mask-optional or will revert to mask-optional after Dec. 4,” he wrote.

The Warwick School District is among the districts that decided to go mask-optional, no matter what the courts decide. Superintendent April Hershey said that the administration and school board are focused on uniting the community, keeping schools open, educating students and keeping students and employees healthy. “We just want to be in the business of doing what’s best for kids,” she said.

We know she means it. Hershey is a dedicated and caring educator. But if school officials really want to do what’s best for kids and help to ensure that their schools remain open, they would heed the advice of the experts at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and continue to require masks in schools until more kids are vaccinated against COVID-19.

Conestoga Valley School District is “one of the school districts following the most recent court ruling to Dec. 4, when it will make masks optional,” Geli reported. In remarks during a school board meeting last week, the LNP | LancasterOnline education reporter wrote, Conestoga Valley Superintendent Dave Zuilkoski “expressed how he, like everyone else, is tired of COVID-19 as well as of the lack of civility exhibited at board meetings and the ever-changing mandates and guidance from the state.”

The most recent confusion over the status of the mask order, though, was triggered not by state health officials, but by the court case pressed by a powerful Republican state elected official in concert with anti-masking parents.

What should determine whether kids wear masks in schools should not be politics. It should not be pandemic fatigue. It should not be incivility at school board meetings. It shouldn’t even be the courts.

It should be the expertise of physicians who know how best to protect children against COVID-19.

Vaccination should help to end this pandemic. Limiting COVID-19’s spread so it cannot further mutate will help. But wishing the pandemic was over will not make it so.

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