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Loophole allows some to unmask

HARRISBURG — An apparent loophole in Pennsylvania’s mask mandate for schools is making it easier for some students to go to class without having to cover their faces, even as state education regulators sought to make an example of one openly defiant school board.

The state health secretary’s order requiring masks to be worn inside K-12 school and child care facilities, which took effect Tuesday, includes an exemption for students who claim it would cause or worsen a medical condition.

But there’s no obligation in the masking order for a student to produce a doctor’s note or other supporting medical documentation. Now some school boards that oppose the statewide mandate — or that have gotten an earful from parents — are allowing students to go unmasked with just a parent’s signature.

Spot checks by The Associated Press of about 50 school districts on Thursday revealed at least a dozen around the state — from huge suburban school systems outside Philadelphia to rural districts in the west — are using exemption forms that don’t require a medical professional’s signature, making it easy for parents to opt out on behalf of their children.

Boards “need to make local decisions as to what is best, and those local decisions should give as much power to parents as possible,” said Eric Winter, an attorney who has been advising parents and individual school board members. “This is a way to give them the control to do it.”

While most districts are complying with the letter of the mask mandate, the Tamaqua Area School Board in Schuylkill County is openly flouting it by keeping face coverings optional.

The board’s recalcitrance brought a stern rebuke from state regulators.

Noe Ortega, the state education secretary, warned of various consequences if Tamaqua board members do not reverse course and require students to be masked. They could face fines, civil lawsuits, canceled liability insurance policies and even referral to federal civil rights enforcers, said Ortega, who accused Tamaqua of “flagrantly violating” the masking order.

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