Wolf mandates masks in schools
Governor’s measure takes effect Sept. 7; comes as more schools report cases
Masks will be required starting Tuesday in all Pennsylvania public and private schools, as well as child care facilities, Gov. Tom Wolf has ordered.
The mask mandate is a reversal for Wolf who earlier said he would let the issue up to school districts.
The order, which takes effect Sept. 7 was welcomed by Altoona Area School Board member Rick Hoover, although he thinks it comes a little late as the district has begun reporting cases.
“I’m thrilled that the governor made the decision to require masks, but the mandate is two weeks too late for the district,” Hoover said. “Local districts should have done the right thing and made the right choice a long time ago.”
Hollidaysburg Area School Board member Melissa Mitchell said she opposes Wolf’s mandate.
“It should be parental choice,” Mitchell said of masking. “Leaders at the local level have done a great job with the health and safety plan. It should be a local decision.”
Hollidaysburg Board President Ron Sommer, however, agrees with the mask mandate.
“I feel the masks do help,” Sommer said. “Seeing the delta variant spread, anything we can do to quell the spread is a good thing.”
Wolf said the masking order was necessary after most of the state’s 500 school districts did not impose their own mask mandates.
According to state health officials, more than 5,000 students have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the academic year and Wolf decided to act, citing a coronavirus resurgence that is filling hospital beds and the delta variant that is infecting more young people.
In Blair County, both the Altoona Area and Hollidaysburg Area school districts are reporting positive coronavirus cases less than a week into the school year.
In Hollidaysburg, masks were optional for everyone, while at Altoona, masks were required for unvaccinated employees.
Charles Prijatelj, superintendent of AASD, said there are more than a dozen cases in the district, with two of those cases being employees.
“It’s not huge, but it’s not nonexistent either,” Prijatelj said. “We’ve got to stay on top of contact tracing.”
Prijatelj said 35 people from the high school building are currently quarantining.
“We’re doing everything we can to make sure our children, faculty and staff are safe,” Prijatelj said, adding that his district is taking measures including disinfecting buildings at least once a week.
News of cases within AASD comes less than a week after the board voted not to require masks in the buildings, a decision Hoover staunchly opposed.
HASD Superintendent Robert Gildea said his district has become aware of positive cases within all of its five buildings.
Gildea said the cases are a mix of employees and students, but that he does not have an exact number of cases at this time.
“There is a strong indication of transmission within one of our schools,” Gildea said, though he declined to name the school. He said the district is notifying parents of all positive students and close contacts across the district.
While there is evidence of spread within at least one of the five buildings, Gildea said, some cases in other buildings have been connected to positive cases among family members.
On Monday, Gildea sent a letter to families of students at Charles W. Longer Elementary, informing them that two positive cases were confirmed within the building.
The letter, signed by Gildea and Longer Principal Brian Keagy, said, “It is our hope that our collective efforts will ensure that in-person learning will continue and make alternative learning platforms unnecessary.”
Gildea said the district might revisit the health and safety plan at the next board meeting on Sept. 8, but that he’s confident in the plan’s adequacy in addressing positive cases.
“My end goal is to keep students and staff safe and in school,” Gildea said. “A majority of parents are more than willing to do whatever it takes to do so, and I’m pleased with that willingness.”
The governor said the masking order will be reevaluated in early October. Until that time, the Department of Health order requires all students, teachers and staff to wear face coverings when inside, regardless of vaccination status, the Wolf administration said.
“It’s crucial for students and staff to wear masks in school. This is a necessary step to keep our students and teachers safe and in the classroom, where they all need to be and where we want them all to be,” Wolf said during a press conference.
The state is averaging more than 3,200 new, confirmed COVID-19 infections daily — 20 times the number of cases being reported on a typical day in early July. More than 1,850 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 and deaths have doubled in the last two weeks to about 20 a day.
Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam said Tuesday that the most troubling statistic is the explosive rise in the number of children testing positive — up nearly 300% in six weeks. She said nearly half of those pediatric infections were in children under 12, too young to be vaccinated.
“The reality that we are living in now is extremely different than it was just one month ago,” Beam said.
There are limited exceptions to the mask mandate. A mask doesn’t have to be worn if it would cause or worsen a medical condition, or if it would make a task unsafe. Student-athletes don’t have to wear a mask while they’re playing, the Wolf administration said.
Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.