How did the Wolf Administration order in-school masking?

Written by on September 9, 2021

How did the Wolf Administration order in-school masking?

By Brad Klein

September 9, 2021

Photo by Max Fischer from Pexels

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Tuesday was the start for Pennsylvania’s K through 12 masking mandate. The order was issued last week by Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam, not Gov. Wolf. 

Sarah Anne Hughes, deputy editor for SpotlightPA, a non­partisan investigative newsroom which has been covering these issues, recently joined us by phone to discuss the move by the Wolf administration. 

Brad Klein

“Thanks for being with us.”

Sarah Anne Hughes

“Thank you.” 

Klein

Gov. Wolf was unable to issue an emergency declaration that could have required masking in schools. That’s because many of his emergency powers were curtailed in the last election when a ballot measure changed the state constitution. So how was his administration able to move forward on a masking mandate?” 

Hughes

“What the Wolf Administration did was issue an order through the secretary of health using powers she has under a law called the Disease Prevention and Control Law. And so this law has been cited several times throughout the pandemic to do things like business closures and mask mandates. Essentially the administration has argued that this law gives the secretary of health, even without an emergency declaration, wide discretion to put orders in place to protect the public health of the commonwealth.” 

Klein

“So the GOP-controlled legislature has now said they’ll return to Harrisburg ahead of schedule hoping to take on the Pennsylvania Department of Health mandate. What can they do? What do they want to do?” 

Hughes

“That’s a great question and I think it’s unclear at the moment what they can do. You know, it should be said that the Disease Prevention and Control Law is extremely old. It’s decades old and terribly out of date and is badly in need of updating. So it’s possible that the legislature could work on that and write a bill that would update the law, including curtailing the secretary of health’s powers. Of course, that’s not something Gov. Tom Wolf would want to sign, so that’s sort of a dead end for the legislature. So I think that they are right now trying to figure out as a body what if anything they can do to end this order.”

Klein

“Some parents have filed suit to fight the mask mandate. Will this get decided in the courts eventually, do you think?”

Hughes

“Yes, I think that is absolutely the end game for this.” 

“One of those parents is actually Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R) of Centre County who, not in his official capacity but in his role as an individual and as a parent of two minors, is part of this lawsuit that was filed in Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania that essentially says that the secretary of health cannot do this. That in order for this to go through the Disease Prevention and Control Law, it also needs to go through a regulatory process and that they can’t just do these orders unilaterally.” 

Klein

“Is it the kind of thing where we could see a decision or a temporary restraining order issued very soon or is it the kind of thing that could last years?” 

Hughes

“I think we can expect Commonwealth Court to make a quick decision about whether to let this order stand. But absolutely, this is going to go all the way to the state Supreme Court which throughout the pandemic has decided questions like this pretty quickly knowing that it’s a matter of public health and that they can’t leave these things unresolved for too long.”

Klein

“I have a question which is sort of a big picture question: It strikes me that there are tremendous downsides to creating hundreds of sometimes vicious debates in state school boards. And I wonder what you think is the possible price of returning these decisions to 500 school boards, roughly. The price of prolonging the pandemic and also maybe the price in damage to the way we run schools.”

Hughes

“It’s a fantastic question. And then there’s also the actual price, right? So as you said, school boards across the state have been grappling with how to make this decision. They’re talking to parents on both sides who are angry, who want masks in schools, who don’t want masks in schools. But the Wolf Administration is thinking this does simplify things quite a bit for the school boards, that it no longer sort of makes them the enemy to parents, you know? The decision is out of their hands and it also, for better or worse, centralizes how this is resolved, right? Instead of potentially hundreds of lawsuits, you have one lawsuit that the highest court in the state is going to make a decision on one way or the other.” 

Klein

“Sarah Anne Hughes is deputy editor for SpotlightPA, a non­partisan investigative newsroom. Thanks for joining us.”

Hughes

“My pleasure.”

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