PA high court kills school mask mandate

AP Photo/Marta Lavandier, File

Democratic Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s acting Health Secretary, Alison Beam, recently issued a statewide face mask mandate for all K-12 students in response to an uptick in COVID cases around the state. That particular mandate was immediately challenged in the courts and it hasn’t fared well at all. Two lower courts already rejected the validity of the mandate and on Friday the state’s supreme court appeared to drive the final nail in the coffin. They invalidated the mandate, sending the Governor’s office back to the drawing board. Unfortunately, the initial ruling was handed down without a written opinion so the basis for the rejection – along with any path forward in response – remains a mystery. But at least for the parents who had led the charge against the mandate, there may be some good news on the horizon. Or at least for some of them, anyway. (Associated Press)

A statewide mask mandate for Pennsylvania schoolchildren was thrown out by the state Supreme Court on Friday, raising the prospect that at least some students in the state may soon be allowed to attend classes without a face covering.

The justices announced their decision to invalidate the Wolf administration’s statewide mandate for masks inside K-12 school buildings and child care facilities but did not issue a written opinion that explains their reasoning.

They upheld a lower-court decision that the mandate was imposed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s acting health secretary without legal authorization.

If the high court was following the same logic as the previous Commonwealth Court, there are a few fatal flaws in Beam’s decision to issue the mandate. First of all, Beam is just the acting secretary. She hasn’t even been confirmed yet. The lower court further found that she wouldn’t have the authority to issue such an order under existing state law. And finally, the order could only be given in that fashion under a declared state of emergency. Pennsylvania’s state of emergency has expired and Wolf hasn’t issued a new one. So all of the reasons for the injunction may have less to do with mask mandates than simple breakdowns in the governing and regulatory processes.

This doesn’t mean that there won’t be any mask mandates in Keystone State schools, however. Nothing in the court’s ruling suggests that mask mandates are forbidden. Such orders may still be issued at the local level by school boards. The Governor’s spokesperson quickly moved to urge such actions, getting in some thinly veiled threats in the process. She said that face masks are ” a proven and simple way to keep kids in school without interruption and participate in sports and other extracurricular activities.”

The implications of that statement are obvious. ‘Force your kids to wear masks or we’ll cancel their extracurricular activities or send them back to remote learning at home.’

Personally, I don’t have a problem with that approach because at least it would still be up to the communities to decide. Sticking with standard conservative political theory, the best government is the one centered closest to the governed. Decisions such as these are more easily controlled and handled at the local level rather than in the halls of the state or federal government. If a local school board wants to issue a mask mandate for the public schools and a majority of families support the idea, then the system is operating as intended.

Conversely, if a school board takes such an action and the parents largely oppose it, they have direct access to make their voices heard at the next school board meeting. If satisfaction isn’t obtained, they get to work electing new board members who will recognize the wishes of the community and do away with the mandate. That can take place far more quickly and easily than an attempt to remove a sitting governor.