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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Tosses School Mask Mandate

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A statewide mask mandate for Pennsylvania schoolchildren was thrown out by the state Supreme Court on Friday, raising the prospect that at least some students in the state may soon be allowed to attend classes without a face covering.

The justices announced their decision to invalidate the Wolf administration's statewide mandate for masks inside K-12 school buildings and child care facilities but did not issue a written opinion that explains their reasoning.

They upheld a lower-court decision that the mandate was imposed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's acting health secretary without legal authorization. The practical impact of the decision will depend on what the justices say in the written opinion or opinions they will issue in the case and which schools and school districts impose their own masking requirements.

The court took action amid a statewide surge in new infections and hospitalizations. Pennsylvania is reporting an average of 7,571 infections per day, up over 20% in two weeks. Hospitalizations have risen 55% since mid-November, to an average of more than 4,000 per day, and acute-care facilities are becoming overwhelmed.

In North Allegheny School District, there are parents who are disappointed with the ruling. There are also parents who are breathing easy now knowing the mandate was thrown out.

"The school districts are trying really hard to serve their constituents and whenever the state comes in and changes their mind constantly, especially with all the litigation, it gets very confusing and it causes a lot of division within communities," North Allegheny parent Victoria Klaus said.

Before the mandate was in place, many school districts, including North Allegheny, had heated school board meetings on the mask topic.

The decision on whether to require masks in classrooms will be up to school districts again, which makes parent Melinda Wedde worry.

"I'm afraid that we're just going to be back to square one and there's just going to be more of these arguments, more of the protests, more of the back and forth and I think we need to be leaving it where it is, especially as we are heading into the winter, and the board and the district need to be focusing on the student and the teachers' mental health because there is so much more going on in our districts and schools than just masks," Wedde said.

She said the arguing is exhausting and the mask debate can cause more stress for kids.

"I know it brings up a lot of anxieties. I'm wearing my mask, why aren't they? Why don't they care if they get sick or if somebody else gets sick?" said Wedde.

The North Allegheny school board voted last week to "strongly recommend" masks after Jan. 17, when Wolf planned to lift the mask mandate.

"When you have government or other people second guessing your decisions as a parent, it makes your child second guess you and so to have that decision making back in our hands is so wonderful and I'm so thankful," said Klaus.

Wolf press secretary Beth Rementer described the decision as "extremely disappointing."

"The administration recognizes that many school districts want to ensure a safe and healthy learning environment for students and staff, and we are hopeful they will make appropriate mitigation decisions moving forward," Rementer said.

She urged districts to prioritize health and safety, calling masks "a proven and simple way to keep kids in school without interruption and participate in sports and other extracurricular activities."

The justices upheld a Commonwealth Court ruling that Alison Beam, the acting state health secretary, lacked authority to require masks, did not follow state laws about enacting regulations and acted without a required existing disaster emergency declared by the governor in place.

The lower court found Pennsylvania's disease control law does not give health secretaries "the blanket authority to create new rules and regulations out of whole cloth, provided they are related in some way to the control of disease or can otherwise be characterized as disease control measures."

(Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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