Pennsylvania Law Would Allow Parents to Defy School Mask Mandates

A Pennsylvania law that would allow parents to defy the governor's school mask mandates passed through the state Senate Education Committee Tuesday.

The legislation would let parents opt out their students from wearing a mask in school. It would also prohibit schools from separating masked and unmasked students or excluding unmasked students from school-sponsored activities.

The bill is a response from Republican lawmakers to Governor Tom Wolf's statewide mask mandate that requires students, staff and visitors at K-12 schools and child care facilities to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccine status.

"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," Senator Judy Ward, the bill's co-sponsor, said in a meeting of the Education Committee.

Mask Mandate Protest
A law that would allow parents to defy the governor's school mask mandate passed through a state senate committee in Pennsylvania Tuesday. Above, families protest any potential mask mandates before the Hillsborough County Schools Board meeting held at the district office on July 27 in Tampa, Florida. Octavio Jones/Getty Images

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

The Senate Education Committee approved the bill on a party-line vote. It would have to clear the full Senate and the House before going to Democratic Governor Wolf, whose office said he opposes the bill.

The legislation would hand the ultimate decision on masking at school to parents and guardians, allowing them to overrule any face-covering mandate imposed by the state Department of Health, a local health department or a school board.

Wolf has said a universal, statewide order was necessary after most Pennsylvania school districts did not impose their own mask mandates and the Delta variant of the coronavirus caused a statewide surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Some school boards and anti-mask parents and students have vehemently opposed the order, saying without scientific evidence that masks inhibit breathing and cause other problems and that it should remain a parental decision. There's strong evidence masking children in schools can reduce COVID-19 transmission.

The original legislation only applied to mask mandates imposed by state and local health authorities, but was expanded Tuesday to include masking orders from a school board.

Wolf's office lambasted the effort.

"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," said Wolf's spokesperson, Lyndsay Kensinger. "We need Republicans to stop spending their time undermining public health and instead encourage people to get vaccinated."

The governor's office released data on Monday showing that Republicans represent nearly all of the least-vaccinated legislative districts in Pennsylvania.