A 4-1 majority of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court struck down a mandate requiring mask-wearing in the state’s K-12 schools, finding that the state health secretary acted without the authority to impose the rule. The mandate requires all students, staff, and visitors to wear masks indoors, whether or not they have been vaccinated. The rule applies in schools and child care facilities.
The mandate was challenged by a group led by the top Republican in the state senate against Secretary of Health Alison Beam. The state was ordered to appeal the decision by Democratic Governor Tom Wolf to the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court.
The appeals court ruled that the masking rules were not enacted according to state laws requiring such health regulations to be reviewed and adopted only with the governor’s pre-existing emergency declaration.
In the majority opinion, Republican Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon stated that Pennsylvania disease control rules do not give the health secretary a “blanket authority” to enact new regulations unilaterally, even if they are for disease control.
The court’s opinion said that the judges did not express any idea about the “science of efficacy of mask-wearing” or the political context of the controversy about mask mandates.
Democratic Judge Michael Wojcik dissented and wrote a separate opinion. He described the mandate as a “valid interpretive rule” that follows the statutory authority granted to the health secretary.
Gov. Wolf likewise said that the health secretary was within her authority. Last week, he said he would restore the power over masking decisions to local school boards in January.
State Rep. Jesse Topper (R) said that the legal challenge was not “about the masks at all” but was about the idea of a mandate being imposed outside of the normal regulatory process generally required by law.
A group of state Republicans stated support of the ruling, saying that parents should make masking decisions and local school boards, “not unelected bureaucrats.” The statement added that a “blanket mandate” fails to address the needs of individual communities and removes power from the local people who are best positioned to make decisions for their children.