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Pennsylvania court strikes down Wolf administration's K-12 school mask mandate

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A Pennsylvania court struck down the state's K–12 school mask mandate after ruling the acting health secretary did not have the authority to impose the requirements.

In a 4 to 1 decision, the Commonwealth Court sided with the challengers; these included the ranking Republican in the state senate, and others who sued to end acting Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Alison Beam's school mask mandate (which took effect in early September). Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's administration promptly appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, leaving the mandate in effect for now, WGAL-TV reported.

The court said Beam's masking requirements did not comply with state laws about reviewing and approving regulations and was adopted without an existing emergency declaration issued by the governor.

Writing for the majority, Republican Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon said the state's disease control law does not give health secretaries "the blanket authority to create new rules and regulations out of whole cloth, provided they are related in some way to the control of disease or can otherwise be characterized as disease control measures."

She added that the judges "express herein no opinion regarding the science or efficacy of mask-wearing or the politics underlying the considerable controversy the subject continues to engender."

Dissenting Judge Michael Wojcik, a Democrat, wrote that Beam's order was "a valid interpretive rule that tracks the statutory and regulatory authority conferred upon her."

The governor's office defended the health secretary's authority to mandate mask-wearing in schools during a pandemic.

"The Secretary of Health's authority is clearly outlined in existing law. The Department of Health has directed counsel to file an appeal today. Filing of the appeal will immediately stay the Commonwealth Court's decision," a spokeswoman for the governor said in a statement.

"Given the appeal, today's ruling doesn't impact current implementation of the school masking order."

On Monday, the governor said he would return authority over masking decisions to local school districts in January.

The Wolf administration's mask mandate required that students, staff, and visitors at K-12 schools and child care facilities wear masks while indoors, regardless of whether or not they've been vaccinated.

State Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R), state Rep. Jesse Topper (R), parents, and school entities sued the state to stop the mandate.

Topper called Beam's order "an end-around the constitutional amendment passed by the people, limiting the executive branch's authority during a state of emergency."

"It wasn't the masks at all," he said Wednesday. "It was about the idea of imposing a mandate like this on a healthy population of children outside any of the regulatory process that you would normally have to go through or any of the legislative process you would normally have to go through."

In a statement, Corman and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) praised the decision.

"Today's ruling validates what we have said all along — mask decisions should be made by parents and school boards, not unelected bureaucrats," the Republican leaders said. "A blanket mandate does not address the unique needs and circumstances of individual communities, and it takes power away from the people who are in the best position to protect our kids."

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