Pennsylvania Supreme Court Counters Governor's School Mask Mandate, Onus Now on Schools

Pennsylvania's state Supreme Court Friday ruled to invalidate a mask mandate for K-12 schools and child care facilities that was issued by the state's acting health secretary, leaving the decision of requiring masks for students in the hands of school districts.

The decision to throw out the mandate was made as cases have risen over 20 percent over the past two weeks, with an average of over 4,000 hospitalizations per day, which is a 55 percent increase since the middle of November. The Associated Press reported Thursday that nursing homes and some hospitals are overwhelmed due to the increase in cases and staff shortages.

The state Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that said the state's acting health secretary Alison Beam didn't have the authority to require masks without an existing disaster emergency declaration from the governor, a decision Gov. Tom Wolf's press secretary Beth Rementer called "extremely disappointing," according to The Associated Press.

"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.

In July, 59 of 474 school districts in the state had submitted a plan to the Education Department saying they would require masks for the current school year, regardless of state orders.

Rementer called masks "a proven and simple way to keep kids in school without interruption and participate in sports and other extracurricular activities," and said the administration hopes that schools prioritize the health and safety of their students going forward.

Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, School Mask Mandate
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf addresses supporters before former President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally for statewide Democratic candidates on Sept. 21, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The state's Supreme Court Friday threw out a mask mandate for K-12 school issued by Wolf's acting health secretary Alison Beam earlier this year. Mark Makaela/Getty Images

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 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."

"The decision will be left to the 500 school districts in Pennsylvania, with respect to what to do with the implications of this order," said Thomas W. King III, a lawyer for the Republican lawmakers, school districts, schools and parents who sued to challenge it.

King, who has advised against mask mandates, said school boards will have to consult their own lawyers about what policy to now adopt.

"This is a great day in Pennsylvania for the rule of law," King said. "The Supreme Court has proved that no one is above the law, and that includes the secretary of health or the governor."

The decision comes just two days after the high court heard oral arguments in the case.

The lawsuit was filed by Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre; state Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford; two religious schools; three public school districts; and several parents of schoolchildren.

Beam's actions, the litigants argued, left the public unable to voice their opinions and the General Assembly unable to review the policy's legality or necessity, and violated state law.

The attorney general's office, representing Beam, told the court earlier this week there does not appear to be anything to prevent schools and school districts from issuing their own masking orders.

The mask mandate took effect in early September. Wolf announced in November he intends to return authority over masking decisions to local school districts in January, but will continue to require masks in child care centers and early learning programs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, School Mask Mandate
Families protest any potential mask mandates before the Hillsborough County Schools Board meeting held at the district office on July 27, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Friday that the acting state health secretary did not have the authority to issue a mask mandate for K-12 schools in the state and threw it out. Octavio Jones/Getty Images