Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee Pitches Mask Opt Out for Students in K-12 Schools

Written By Caitlyn Scott, Co-News Editor

The Senate Education Committee of Pennsylvania approved a bill on Sept. 28 that would allow parents to opt their children out of mandatory mask wearing within K-12 schools in the state, which has led students and health officials to question the risks of exemptions and if the bill could go further for higher education institutions.

The state-wide mask mandate within public and private schools, along with early learning and child-care facilities, was reinstated by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf back on Sept. 7, according to Spotlight PA News. The reinstitution came following a public health order from Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam before the beginning of the Fall 2021 school term.

“At the end of the day, I do think that it is up to personal choice,” Alex Zahniser, a broadcast production and media management major at Point Park University said. “I would say that these decisions are ultimately up to the schools and for parents to work out.”

Currently, COVID-19 vaccines are eligible for those 12 years old and above, with Pfizer-BioTech proposing data to the FDA on Sept. 28 for the approved usage for children above the age of 5, according to USA Today. The expansion of eligibility would account for over 28 million children, who make up 8.5% of the United States population.

“I believe that K-12 schools aren’t lifting the mandate because colleges have not lifted their mandate yet, even though all students are required to have the vaccine,” Zak McCopin, a cinema arts student at Robert Morris University said. “I don’t think it makes sense that schools are requiring both the vaccine and masks, but colleges don’t want to be shut down for a plethora of reasons, so I understand why they require masks. Better safe than sorry.”

With eligibility requirements continuing to change, along with the implementation of mandates across schools in Pennsylvania, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have progressively risen, among both vaccinated and unvaccinated residents within the state.

According to the Associated Press, data collected between Sept. 5 and Oct. 4 showcased what the Department of Health has called “breakthrough” infections among those who are fully vaccinated. Based on reports on Oct. 8, breakthrough cases among those vaccinated represent just over 26%, from over 135,000 new infections and 5,000 hospitalizations, with death statistics inaccessible due to pauses in reports and verifications in the state death registry.

“This is something that if we don’t do this, we’re not going to have a school year with kids in the classroom, and that’s going to be a wasted, lost school year for our children,” Wolf said in a statement, referring to the students in public schools where eligibility for vaccines for children 11 years old and under have not been approved.

The mandate also requires masks within private institutions, and several school boards have also ended meetings with parents that have demonstrated strong disapproval of the mask mandate since the first weeks of the 2021 year, according to GoErie News.

Since the mandate, parents and lawmakers across the state have filed multiple lawsuits in Commonwealth Court, according to TribLive.

One of the suits, filed by parents in various school districts, alleges that Health Secretary Beam does not possess the authority to issue the mandate, which does not acknowledge exemptions on religion and theoretical principles. The order does include some exemptions in certain situations —such as for identification purposes, eating and drinking and people with specific medical conditions, among others. Some legal experts do contest that Beam and the rest of the Wolf administration do carry the authority to issue the mandate.

With the lawsuits continuing and school districts determining their best safety measures for students, Senator Judy Ward (R-Blair) co-sponsored the legislation with Senator Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin) at the Education Committee meeting for the options of masks within schools.

“My office has been overwhelmed with calls and emails from parents so upset with the masking mandates from the Wolf administration and from our own school districts,” Ward said in a statement.

The original legislation was only targeted at mask mandates issued by state and local health authorities, but according to the Associated Press, it was expanded to include mask ordinance orders imposed by school boards. Also, if signed into law, the bill would prohibit schools from dividing unmasked students from others and excluding such students from school-sponsored activities.

“As of right now, I don’t think that the mask mandate will be lifted for schools,” Natalea Hillen, a broadcast journalism major and marketing minor at Point Park said. “I think all types of schools are going to require masks but maybe next year, they might make it optional. We will have to see what happens.”

Lyndsay Kensinger, the Press Secretary for the Wolf administration, released a statement in opposition towards the proposed legislation:

“The bill supporters’ efforts would better serve their constituents and the commonwealth as a whole by focusing on increasing the vaccination rates within their legislative districts instead of working on this unnecessary legislation,” Kensinger said.

On Oct. 8, the Pennsylvania Principals Association issued a statement, submitted by the executive director of the association Eric Eshbach, concerning mask and vaccination requirements within school districts in the state, not wanting to partake in a debate over the issue of mandates.

“While wearing a mask may be uncomfortable, distracting and restricting, if it ensures students can be present in an in-person environment, then it is necessary,” the statement said. “If contact tracing and quarantining of small groups ensures the well-being of the majority, then we support that. The safety of our students and educators is just as important as the adequate and appropriate delivery of instruction.”

Following the proposal of the mask opt out bill, US News reported that Governor Wolf’s office released official data on Sept. 27 showing that Republicans represent most of the least-vaccinated legislative districts within the state.

“Most of those who are anti-vaccination are from conservtive viewpoints, it’s not really implying anything other than just stating the facts,” Christian Messmer, a computer science major at Rochester Institute of Technology said. “This isn’t a good idea, not until children can be vaccinated or all adults that aren’t, get it.”

Despite this, further negotiations of the bill are anticipated to be presented in front of Wolf, who will either sign it into law or veto the proposed bill.

“The proposal will get shut down, most likely,” Messmer said. “Since people aren’t getting vaccinated, we still have surging infection rates. This isn’t good.”