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GOP senator wants mask decisions made locally

Gov. Tom Wolf and state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine are adamant all students must wear a mask in Pennsylvania classrooms this year.

Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams/Cumberland/Franklin/York, wants that decision to be made locally.

On Aug. 12, Mastriano introduced Senate Bill 1234, which would allow school districts to create an opt-out option for mandated mask wearing. The legislation was referred to the Senate’s Education Committee. The legislation itself simply states that a school district is not required to enforce a requirement for those on school grounds to wear a face covering under Wolf’s March 6 disaster emergency proclamation and any renewals of emergency powers.

“Local school boards and school directors know their communities better than state bureaucrats,” Mastriano wrote in his legislative memorandum.

“Therefore, school boards should have a role in implementing COVID-19 safety measures. After all, with 500 school districts statewide, there is no “one size fits all approach” when dealing with pandemic mitigation. Unfortunately, recent mandates have removed local school boards from the equation.”

Mastriano’s legislation faces an uphill battle to be enacted, and on Tuesday Wolf and Levine made clear that masks are to be worn practically at all times by students in school.

Masks must be worn in school, even when students and educators are 6 feet apart, Levine said.

“We have had questions about it and we’ve had enough questions that we wanted to clarify,” Levine said at a news conference. “That we mean that when the young people are wearing masks, that they are wearing masks that they are in their classroom even though they’re 6 feet apart, they should be wearing their masks.”

But with some private and career technical schools already open, school officials say it is another frustrating change in guidance. They say they had previously been told that students and educators could remove their masks in the classrooms if they were at least 6 feet apart.

“We all understand this is a fluid situation, things change as the virus continues its path,” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “But the sand shifting beneath the feet of school leaders makes it frustrating to deal with. It’s hard to make plans when things change on a weekly basis.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that universal face covering is ideal in schools, but not always possible in the school setting for many reasons.

DiRocco said it’s going to be a much more difficult task to ensure that students have a mask on their face throughout the day in a classroom setting, particularly in younger children through third grade.

“That’s just a lot to ask of them,” DiRocco said.

Levine, however, pointed to an expanded masking order issued July 1, which applies to all public and private schools and children 2 and older, the administration’s updated guidance said.

Exceptions to that are when students are 6 feet apart and eating or drinking or taking brief breaks, or when wearing a face-covering is unsafe to operate equipment or carry out a task.

A face-covering means covering the nose and mouth, and must be secured to the head with ties, straps or loops over the ears, or wrapped around the lower face, the guidance says.

Coverings can be made of various synthetic or natural fabrics, including cotton, silk or linen, and can include a plastic face shield that covers the nose and mouth, the guidance says.

In Connecticut, according to the Hartford Courant, two Connecticut parents have filed a state court appeal arguing a Connecticut Department of Education mandate that students returning to classrooms this fall wear face masks is unconstitutional.

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