The COVID-19 Pandemic has brought many different challenges to Pennsylvania’s schools. With each twist and turn of community spread, and related change in state and federal regulatory reaction, school districts have needed to be both flexible and forceful on any given day.
With these changes has come severe public scrutiny. Whether it be with school closures, virtual learning, or mask mandates, few districts have experienced the level of daily public outcry as has accompanied this pandemic.
This last category—mask requirements—has been perhaps the most contentious. Many parents are adamantly opposed to their children wearing masks on the bus and in school, and have sought every possible means to avoid this requirement. Parents have sought medical exemptions, religious exemptions, or simply refused to have their children comply with the mask requirement.
However, some parents have gone even further to counter the statewide mask mandate, alleging that the mask requirement amounts to child abuse. Parents have coupled this allegation with threats to school staff about calls to Childline should their children be held in compliance with the masking order.
Just recently, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) and Department of Human Services (DHS) issued a joint response to the small but growing contingent of parents claiming that the mask mandate is tantamount to child abuse. In a strongly worded letter, the Secretary of PDE and Secretary of DHS defend the medical basis for the mask policy and criticize parents who would compare masking to child abuse.
While acknowledging that obstructing a child’s breathing is considered child abuse under the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law, PDE and DHS announce in no uncertain terms that “mask wearing for children 2 and older does not obstruct breathing and is not child abuse.” According to PDE and DHS, research overwhelmingly shows that mask-wearing does not limit breathing or oxygen levels, and is recommended for children by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
PDE and DHS do not mince words when they say that “reports that falsely conflate an evidence-based public health measure designed to protect children, school personnel, and our entire communities against a deadly and highly contagious virus to child abuse is insulting and disrespectful to survivors of child abuse.” The department heads point out that child welfare workers are already stressed for time and resources, and that false claims related to mask wearing only further strain the already-taxed system.
PDE and DHS also point out that the most effective tool against the virus—vaccination—is not yet available to many of Pennsylvania’s 1.7 million public school students. Therefore, the most effective way to continue with in-person instruction until vaccination can become more widespread in schools is for all students and staff to wear masks.
Bottom Line for Schools
Conceding that some arguments against mandatory mask-wearing may have some merit, the contention that mandatory masking constitutes child abuse is not one of them.
The fact is that responsible government agencies have determined that the best way for students to continue being educated is to require universal mask-wearing.
Pennsylvania school staff are mandatory reporters of child abuse. Staff must remain diligent in spotting the signs of such abuse and reporting it as necessary. However, the proper use of masks for students over the age of 2 does not amount to child abuse and should not result in school staff contacting Childline.
If you have a question, please contact your legal counsel or one of the education 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.