Pennsylvania’s largest teachers’ union told districts to adopt universal masking policies if they want to keep schools open for in-person instruction all year long.
Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, made the call in a news release Wednesday as districts across the state grapple with reopening policies ahead of the new school year.
“We know that safe in-person instruction is the best setting for students to learn,” he said. “For that reason, PSEA wants to see every school in the state start the school year in person, continue in person, and finish in person. That will be impossible if schools have to close their doors because of a rapid spread of this virus.”
PSEA represents 178,000 active and retired educators and school staff members across the state. The guidance follows comments from the National Education Association advocating for masking, vaccination, proper ventilation, social distancing and hand washing in all schools to prevent spread of COVID-19.
“Masking up at school is essential in the face of the surging Delta variant that affects young people more aggressively than the original strain of the virus,” Askey said. “This is a particular concern when you consider that roughly two-thirds of students have not yet received a COVID-19 vaccine.”
The state Department of Health encouraged districts to follow guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued Aug. 5 that recommend masking for students and staff indoors. Only children 12 and older can receive the vaccine in Pennsylvania.
Some lawmakers have worried that without state-ordered mask mandate, however, local districts lack the authority the require one.
Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam, however, said she will not issue one lest she face legislative retaliation that could jeopardize her agency’s other COVID-19 response measures.
Instead, she announced earlier this week, the department will use federal money to sponsor vaccine clinics and weekly testing initiatives in any public school that wants to participate as a way to identify emerging outbreaks and prevent widespread transmission among students.
“It is imperative that students, educators, and staff who feel they need or want a test, especially if they think they have been exposed to COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms, have access to free COVID-19 testing,” Beam said. “In addition to getting vaccinated, this testing initiative is another tool in our toolbox for schools to keep ‘Friday night lights’ shining brightly this year.”
Askey added that keeping schools open will require a multilayered approach that starts with masking.
“We are at a crossroads, and what our schools decide now will set the stage for what this school year looks like,” he said. “If we’re going to be able to keep our schools open for in-person instruction all year, we need to make the right decisions now.”
It’s unclear how many districts will require masks as parents raise concerns about the psychological impact of wearing masks all day long. Others argue it’s their decision, not the district’s, as to whether their child wears a mask at all.