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Thousands of state’s students request face mask exemptions

Thousands of students have requested to go mask-free in Pennsylvania schools, claiming a medical exemption amid fierce local opposition to the state’s new face-covering mandate.

The order, which went into effect Sept. 7 and applies to all K-12 schools and child care facilities in Pennsylvania, requires students, staff and visitors to wear masks inside school buildings, regardless of vaccination status. But an apparent loophole has made it easier for parents in some districts to request medical exemptions for their children. Those districts are using exemption forms that require nothing more than a parent’s signature.

State officials are pushing back, but it’s not clear how far they will go to get districts to enforce the masking requirement more stringently. At least two lawsuits are seeking to get the mandate overturned.

In a Sept. 10 communication to all 500 Pennsylvania school districts, the Education Department asserted that “any school entity simply permitting a parent’s sign-off without evidence that the student has a medical or mental health condition … is not in compliance with the order.” It said districts should determine eligibility in accordance with federal disability laws, and request medical documentation as they normally would.

Some school district officials counter that if the Wolf administration had wanted to require a doctor’s endorsement, it should have done so in the masking order itself.

Richard Mextorf, superintendent of the Hamburg Area School District, said the state put local officials in a bind by abruptly reversing course on masking, promising local control before issuing a statewide mandate after many schools were already back in session.

“It’s pretty difficult when a school board says, ‘We’re going to make masks optional for kids,’ and then school starts and then the mandate comes. I think it would have been a lot cleaner if we had a mandate before school started,” he said. “All of the sudden it changed, and I think it just made people angry. … I think it’s been handled about as backwards as it can possibly be handled.”

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