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Pennsylvania Court Tosses School Mask Mandate

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A Pennsylvania state court recently tossed an order from the acting health secretary requiring masks in K-12 schools and child-care facilities. It was said that she did not have the authority. According to the Wolf administration, lawyers were instructed to immediately appeal. The Commonwealth Court sided 4-1 in favor of the Republican ranking in the state Senate, and other plaintiffs who sought to challenge the masking orders that came into effect in September due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Judges ruled that Alison Beam, acting Health Secretary, was not in compliance with state laws regarding reviewing and approving regulations. They also ruled that the mandate was adopted without a declaration of a disaster emergency by the governor.

Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon said that the state’s law doesn’t give health secretaries the authority to create rules and regulations from scratch. She stated that the judges had no opinion on the science, efficacy, or politics of mask-wearing, or the controversy it continues to generate. Wolf announced Monday that he will return to January local school districts the authority to make decisions about masking.

Beth Rementer, Wolf press secretary, stated that the secretary of health’s authority is clearly outlined by existing law. She said that the Department of Health directed counsel to file an appeal and that the Court’s decision will have immediately stayed if the appeal is filed.

Judge Michael Wojcik was one of the two Democrats who made up the five-judge panel. He wrote in lone dissension that Beam’s decision was “a valid interpretation rule that tracks the regulatory and statutory authority that she has been given.”

This mandate was imposed by the Wolf administration amid an increase in hospitalizations and infections caused by the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus. Beam mandated that all children and staff in K-12 schools and child care centers wear masks indoors. There are exceptions.

Two constitutional amendments were passed by Republican state legislators. They were approved by voters in May. These amendments limit the duration of gubernatorial declarations of disaster.

Rep Jesse Topper sued, along with Jake Corman, parents, and school entities. He said that the issue was not the masks. The Beam order, he said, was an “end-around” the constitutional amendment that was passed by the people. It limits the executive branch’s power during a state emergency.

Voters agreed that a governor’s emergency declaration would be canceled after 21 days. They also gave the sole authority to extend or cancel it at any moment with a simple majority vote. The state constitution had to be approved by a two-thirds majority of lawmakers before it could be repealed. Legally, the governor can issue an emergency declaration for up 90 days or extend it without limitation.

Topper stated Wednesday that it wasn’t about the masks. It was the idea of imposing such a mandate on a healthy population without any of the regulatory processes that you would normally need to go through, or any of your legislative processes. Kim Ward, the Senate Majority Leader, and Corman both released a statement hailing the decision.

They state that today’s ruling confirms what they have always said — that mask decisions should be made and approved by parents and school boards, rather than unelected bureaucrats. The Republican leaders went on to emphasize how a blanket mandate doesn’t address the specific needs and circumstances of each community, and it takes away power from those who are best able to protect our children.

The House Republicans requested a declaration from the obscure Joint Committee on Documents stating that Beam’s order needed to be enacted as regulation last month. However, they were rejected 7-4.

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