Pennsylvania schools need a statewide requirement that students in classrooms wear masks as protection against the coronavirus, the Democratic governor wrote in a letter Wednesday to legislative leaders.
The message was a turnaround for Gov. Tom Wolf, who had maintained that a mask mandate was an issue for school boards to decide and questioned why Pennsylvania should mandate something that wasn't mandated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In his letter, Wolf asked Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, and House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, to call lawmakers back to Harrisburg immediately to work on a bill to order schools and child care facilities to require masks in classrooms.
Concerned parents, pediatricians, teachers and others have been urging state officials for such a mandate, Wolf said.
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Wolf's administration last year mandated that masks be worn by students most of the time they are in school.
Wolf’s letter said that at the end of July, just 59 of 474 school district plans submitted to the Education Department mandated masks for the just-starting 2021-22 school year.
“It is clear that action is needed to ensure children are safe as they return to school,” Wolf said.
Wolf told Cutler and Corman he has “become increasingly concerned about misinformation being spread to try to discredit a school district's clear ability to implement masking” as well as “local control being usurped by the threat — implicit or explicit — of political consequences for making sound public health and education decisions.”
A spokesperson for Cutler said the two leaders were reviewing Wolf's letter and were likely to respond Wednesday.
A spokesperson for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said the House GOP caucus was against voting on a statewide mask mandate.
“Just because there’s not a statewide mandate requiring people to wear masks doesn’t mean people don’t have the option to wear masks,” said Benninghoff spokesperson Jason Gottesman.
Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, put out a written statement late Tuesday that said she was confident that parents and districts can make the best decisions for their children.
“As I have consistently stated, it is important to ensure the resources available and decisions being made are not used to strong-arm or pressure individuals,” Ward said.
In May, Pennsylvania voters narrowly approved a statewide referendum that curbed a governor's emergency powers. The constitutional amendments were proposed by Republican lawmakers angry over Wolf’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, including his orders shuttering businesses, sending students home for online schooling and ordering masks worn outside the home.
But Wolf — who largely had lifted his orders before the referendum — has maintained that the referendum did not limit his authority to issue orders designed to prevent COVID-19 from spreading, such as shutdowns or masking restrictions. Those rest on separate public health law, his administration has said.
Wolf did not explicitly threaten to unilaterally issue a mask mandate in schools, if lawmakers fail to act.
“My administration will continue to monitor the situation, communicate and work with the General Assembly and take actions as needed to keep our children safe, and in the classroom,” Wolf said in the letter.
Pennsylvania’s two statewide teachers unions last week urged K-12 schools to require masks in school buildings, citing the threat of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks in schools for students, staff and teachers.
But masking has become a contentious and politicized issue, with heated debate taking place at the local level as school boards decide what their policy will be as schools reopen for the fall. Some Pennsylvania districts said they will require masks, including urban school districts in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Erie, Allentown and Bethlehem, but many others have decided to make them optional.
In other coronavirus-related developments in Pennsylvania on Wednesday:
GEISINGER TO REQUIRE EMPLOYEE VACCINATIONS
One of the state’s largest health systems said it will require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Geisinger gave its nearly 24,000 employees until Oct. 15 to get the shot, citing rising numbers of coronavirus infections and hospitalizations. It said about 70% are already fully vaccinated.
“We understand that some employees who have consciously chosen to not get vaccinated may be disappointed by this decision. We hope they will understand that this is a necessary step to protect the health of our patients and their colleagues,” Dr. Jaewon Ryu, Geisinger’s president and CEO, said in a written statement.
The Geisinger network includes nine hospitals, a medical school and provider practices throughout central and northeastern Pennsylvania.
Many other large health systems in Pennsylvania require employees to be vaccinated, including the University of Pennsylvania Health System, Lehigh Valley Health Network and St. Luke’s University Health Network. UPMC, the state’s largest health system, encourages but does not mandate that employees get the shot.
Associated Press writer Michael Rubinkam contributed.