Court Strikes Down Pennsylvania School Mask Mandate
By Alison Durkee
A Pennsylvania court ruled Wednesday that the state’s health secretary did not have the authority to issue a school mask mandate, the latest twist in a nationwide dispute over whether masks should be required in schools.
The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court immediately voided the state’s school mask mandate, which Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon wrote failed to comply with Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Documents Law and Regulatory Review Act.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s office told Forbes it will appeal, which will put a stay on the court’s order and leave the mask requirement in place until the higher court rules.
In August, Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam ordered all students, teachers and staff to wear masks inside schools, regardless of vaccination status.
A group of parents, including Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, sued the health secretary in September, alleging the mask mandate was imposed illegally.
Cannon wrote the court’s ruling was only focused on the “narrow legal question” of Beam’s authority to impose the mask order, and it expresses “no opinion” on the “science or efficacy of mask-wearing” itself.
Wolf’s press secretary Elizabeth Rementer disputed the court’s opinion Wednesday, telling Forbes in an email the “Secretary of Health’s authority is clearly outlined in existing law.”
Commonwealth Court Judge Michael H. Wojcik dissented from the ruling. “In this case, the Secretary has acted according to the statutory and regulatory authority conferred upon her to protect the vulnerable student population … by the least restrictive and ‘the most efficient and practical means’ available while the lethal Covid-19 pandemic continues to infect and kill the residents of this Commonwealth,” Wojcik wrote in his dissenting opinion.
The ruling came as Pennsylvania’s school mask order was due to be phased out anyway in light of falling Covid-19 cases. Wolf said Monday he intended to lift the state mask mandate by January 17 and leave any school mask requirements up to local officials, saying it was “time to prepare for a transition back to a more normal setting.”
School mask mandates have been a major source of contention this school year. Pennsylvania is one of at least 10 states that had imposed school mask mandates, while 10 states have banned or heavily restricted school districts from imposing them. A judge in California denied a request for an emergency injunction that would have immediately struck down the state’s mask requirement in September. A number of courts have issued rulings blocking state policies that ban mask mandates, at least as the litigation plays out, though multiple judges in Florida have allowed that state’s prohibition to remain in effect.
Pennsylvania appeals court takes up school mask challenge (Associated Press)
Parents, including a top Pa. Republican, are suing over the school mask mandate. Here’s what to know about the cases. (Philadelphia Inquirer)