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Governor Tom Wolf is set to turn over the mask-mandate decision to local school officials on Jan. 17. Photo: Getty Images
Governor Tom Wolf is set to turn over the mask-mandate decision to local school officials on Jan. 17. Photo: Getty Images

PA’s school mask mandate could end early next year

Governor Tom Wolf is set to turn over the mask-mandate decision to local school officials on Jan. 17.

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Pennsylvania school districts will soon be allowed to modify or end the mask mandate for K-12 students starting in January. Gov. Tom Wolf announced the change on Monday, Nov. 8, saying that it’s time to prepare for a transition back to “a more normal setting.”

On Jan. 17, Wolf expects to turn over decisions about masking to local school officials, but the acting health secretary’s current mask mandate for students will remain in place for early learning programs and childcare facilities.

In early September, the Wolf administration imposed a statewide mandate, citing a rise in infections and hospitalizations from the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19. 

The decision to soon end the statewide mandate arrives days after federal officials approved the vaccine for children ages 5-11. 

“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 virus is now a part of our daily lives, but with the knowledge we’ve gained over the past  20 months and critical tools like the vaccine at our disposal, we must take the next step forward in our recovery,” Wolf said in a statement. 

Leonard Rich, superintendent of Laurel School District in Lawrence County, told WHYY News that his county will make masking optional once the statewide mandate ends. 

In his small district, Rich said COVID-19 cases have remained low even though the use of masks among students has been pretty inconsistent.

“I think schools will shed these mandates rather quickly, and I think that Jan. 17 is about five months too late to return it to a local decision,” he said. 

Wolf had previously stated that masking decisions should be left up to local school officials, but changed his mind late in the summer. He said the universal, statewide order was justified after a majority of the state’s 500 districts did not impose their own mask requirements for schools. 

Not all districts intend to immediately remove mask requirements.

Monica Lewis, a Philadelphia School District spokesperson, told WHYY News that the district will continue to follow Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH) guidelines, which currently require masks indoors. 

“We will continue to have masks be worn inside of our school buildings and offices,” Lewis said, adding that if PDPH modifies the guidelines, the district will adjust to those changes. 

On Monday, the state’s largest teachers union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, commended Wolf’s decision. 

“Considering the current COVID transmission rates in schools and the availability of vaccines for school staff members and now most students, it makes sense to start planning for the next steps toward returning our schools to some normalcy,” said Chris Lilienthal, the assistant director of communications at PSEA.

Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, also praised the announcement. 

“We’re pleased that this order will be lifted and given back to local school districts to make decisions based on the transmission rates in their areas,” DiRocco told WHYY

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