Today, Governor Wolf announced the Order of the Acting Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health mandating universal face coverings within K-12 schools and childcare facilities while indoors, regardless of vaccination status. This order will take effect on September 7, 2021, and applies to the public and private education sectors. As of the date of this Order, there have been 1,300,368 cases and 28,235 deaths in Pennsylvania caused by the spread of COVID-19.
“Doing nothing is not okay.”
Other states are experiencing a steep increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and so is Pennsylvania. Just this past July, Pennsylvania was down to 200 new COVID-19 cases a day. Sadly, just a month later, the state is recording 3000 new COVID-19 cases a day. Similarly, in July there were 245 individuals in the hospital receiving care due to their exposure to COVID-19, and as we sit today, there are 1,850 individuals hospitalized due to COVID-19 exposure. The death rate has also significantly increased from just one month ago. In July there were 10 total deaths, but one month later, and Pennsylvania has 21 new deaths just this month. Cases amongst children from age seventeen and younger have increased 277% from mid-July to August 28, 2021, while children twelve and under are unable to receive COVID-19 vaccine.
98% of the new cases come from the Delta variant. Due to the rise of the Delta variant, disease and hospitalizations, and the inability to obtain vaccines for a large part of that vulnerable group, children are increasingly more at risk as schools start to begin in-person instruction.
In-person instruction is vital to the social, educational, and mental growth of student, however, as transmission rates in every Pennsylvania county reach “high,” students, staff, and educational communities need to be protected as much as possible to stop the spread of COVID-19 and its Delta variant. Students and children under twelve cannot receive the vaccine, and as a result, they are not able to receive that immunization protection others may have. Governor Wolf and the Department of Health urged school districts that masks are needed to protect their students, staff, and other members of the community. Just with the start of the new school year, Pennsylvania has already seen 9,000 students test positive for COVID-19.
In-Person Instruction is Imperative
According to the Order, maintaining in-person instruction is imperative, as in-person instruction and socialization are necessary for the health and well-being of our children. Additionally, School districts provide essential services for many students, such as meals, counseling services, and simple in-person interaction that many students could not benefit from if there were to be school closures due or quarantines due to exposures.
This Order is in accordance with the recommendations of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics and based upon the rising case numbers and hospitalizations Pennsylvania has seen in the last month, including the number of cases in our children, and the need to protect and maintain in-person education for the health and well-being of children.
COVID-19 is a threat to the public’s health, under which, the Secretary of Health may order general control measures. As stated in the Order, this authority is granted to the Secretary of Health pursuant to Pennsylvania law. Specifically, the authority comes from section 5 of the Disease Prevention and Control Law, section 2102(a) of the Administrative Code of 1929, 71 P.S. § 532(a); and the Department of Health’s regulation at 28 Pa. Code § 27.60. Under this authority, the Department of Health has the authority to take any disease control measure appropriate to protect the public from form the spread of an infectious disease.
With the prospect of mandates comes the inevitable question of enforcement. There is no automatic or definite penalty for districts that decline to implement mandatory mask policy consistent with the Health Department’s Order, but school districts refuse mandatory mask wearing at their peril. There is a multitude of possible consequences, including financial penalties, civil actions, and parent uprising.
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.