As schools districts begin to implement their plans for re-opening amid the COVID-19 pandemic, safety protocols are constantly being updated.
On the heels of recommendations by the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), as of August 17th, 2020, Pennsylvania’s Department of Education (“PDE”) is requiring everyone within the school community to wear face coverings at all times while in school, even when six feet of social distancing is being maintained.
Face coverings have demonstrated an ability to aid in the control of COVID-19 by significantly reducing transmission, so school administrations should focus attention on strategies and guidance to encourage student to wear their face coverings. Implementation will inevitably present challenges, below are answers to FAQs to help school administrators implement face coverings in school.
Question #1: Who is required to wear to face coverings in school?
Answer: All students, staff, and visitors age two and older are required to wear masks while in school buildings. This will remain in effect until the Secretary of Health determines face coverings are no longer necessary to aid in the safety of the public health.
School districts should have a plan to prevent and address harmful or inappropriate behavior, such as discrimination or bullying, regarding the use of face coverings. Face coverings should be included on all school supply lists. Additionally, we recommend reminders about face masks be included in daily announcements, school newspapers, and other materials.
Not all parents or staff will agree with school policies, and school districts need to have a plan to address potential challenges that may arise. (See Question #8/Bottom Line below.)
Question #2: When are face coverings required?
Answer: Individuals are to wear face covering if they are:
- Outside and unable to maintain a distance of six feet from others who are not members of their household;
- In any indoor location when members of the public are generally permitted;
- Waiting for, riding on, driving, operating public transportation or paratransit or while in a taxi, private car service or ride-sharing vehicle. This includes bus drivers and passengers. The CDC also recommends wearing face coverings by carpool drivers as they are able;
- Obtaining services from the healthcare sector; or
- Engaged in work at the workplace or off-site, interacting in-person with someone of the public, working in any space where food if prepared or package for sale or distribution, working in or walking through common areas, or in any room or enclosed area where other people are presents and are not able to socially distance.
Question #3: Are there exceptions to this requirement?
Answer: Face coverings have been proven to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, but there are instances when wearing a face mask may not be possible:
- Individuals who cannot wear a mask due to a medical condition,
- Individuals who would be in an unsafe working environment because of a face covering,
- Individuals who would be unable to remove the mask without assistance,
- individuals under two years of age, and
- Individuals who are communicating with someone who is hearing-impaired or has another disability, where the ability to see the mouth is essential for communication. It is also noted individuals are not required to show documentation to prove an exception applies to them.
Parents, guardians, caregivers, teachers, and school administrators should consider adaptions or alternatives whenever wearing a face covering is not feasible.
Question #4: What type of face covering is acceptable?
Answer: PDE defines a “face covering” to mean a covering of the nose and mouth that is secured to the head with ties, straps, or loops over the ears or is wrapped around the lower face. They may be factory-made, sewn by hand, or improvised from household items, including but not limited to, scarves, bandanas, t-shirts, sweatshirts, or towels. They can be made of a variety of synthetic or natural fabrics, including cotton, silk, or linen, and, for the purposes of the order, can include a plastic face shield that covers the nose and mouth.
Question #5: Are students with disabilities required to wear a face covering?
Answer: Children two years and older are required to wear a face covering unless they have a medical or mental health condition or disability in accordance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of IDEA, that precludes the wearing of a face covering in school.
Question #6: Does this order apply to athletes?
Answer: Yes. Everyone must wear a face covering unless they fall under an exception. Although athletes are not required to wear face coverings while actively engaging in workouts or competition, they must wear face coverings while on the sidelines, in the dugout, in the locker-room, during transportation, etc. and anytime social distancing is not possible. Coaches and spectators must wear a face covering as well.
Question #7: Are there situations where student would be allowed to take off their face coverings?
Answer: According to PDE, schools may allow students to remove their face coverings when students are:
- Eating or drinking while at a social distance of 6 feet;
- Completing a task or operating equipment and wearing a face covering would create an unsafe condition; or
- Taking a brief break no longer than 10 minutes at a distance of at least 6 feet apart.
Question #8/Bottom Line for Schools: What do you do if a student or employee is non-compliant?
Answer: In all the volumes of guidance issued by government agencies on masks and social distancing, nowhere does it tell schools how to deal with non-compliance. Before instituting any sanctions against non-compliers, it is important to remember that there are bona fide exceptions when masks can be removed or not required. If legitimate, credible reasons are offered, the exceptions are to be honored. However, general philosophical or alleged constitutional rights for non-compliance are not acceptable and can be addressed. Perhaps the most likely sanctions for students would be assignment to a virtual alternative; suspension from extracurricular activities might be another. Employees who refuse to comply would be subject to the same discipline as for any rule violation.
Schools should consider adopting policies with sanctions for non-compliance clearly defined.
If you have a question, please contact your legal counsel or one of the attorneys at KingSpry.
School Law Bullets are a publication of KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group. This article is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice.