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Pennsylvania school districts required to enforce state's in-school masking mandate

Three high school students sit in a row at their desks with masks on.
Marta Lavandier/AP
In this file photo, students sit in an Algebra class at Barbara Coleman Senior High School on the first day of school, Aug. 23, 2021, in Miami Lakes, Fla. Miami-Dade County public schools require students to wear a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Mask are required in K-12 schools in Pennsylvania in fall 2021.

A message circulating among school officials in Pennsylvania lists the repercussions they could face if they don’t enforce an order from the Secretary of Health requiring school districts in Pennsylvania enforce the state’s indoor masking mandate.

Jason Penland, a board member in the Bald Eagle Area School District in Centre County, and others have heard from parents and others who want districts to disregard the state’s masking order. He said there's a perception that the board could just ignore the state mandate, which took effect Sept. 7.

So he spoke with parents after a board meeting and posted a message that included a list of possible consequences districts could face if they don’t enforce the in-school masking mandate.

He said the possibility of liability for the school district would be a big deal if it came to that.

“We can go from this school district that’s in great shape financially, has been for years, to where we cannot afford this cascade of lawsuits that would be coming our way," Penland said.

That list of possible outcomes— from financial penalties to loss of liability insurance coverage — is being shared with school districts through the state’s educational Intermediate Units.

Penland said the situation is frustrating for school districts.

“Regardless of where anyone stands on the issue, it just puts the schools in such an untenable situation both in enforcing the mandate and ensuring we’re actually doing what the state wants us to," he said.

The warning message comes after one school district in Schuylkill County voted to keep masks optional, and the Secretary of Education responded with a letter listing the possible legal consequences.

Scott Etter, a lawyer who represents school districts in and around central Pennsylvania, said he reviewed the Secretary of Health’s order requiring in-school masking, and thinks that, in general, it's lawful.

“I think across the board there are quite a few ramifications monetarily, professionally and from a liability standpoint that could adversely impact a district and its constituents if they were refusing to comply with the order," Etter said.

The order is facing a legal challenge in court.

Anne Danahy is a reporter at WPSU. She was a reporter for nearly 12 years at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, where she earned a number of awards for her coverage of issues including the impact of natural gas development on communities.