Wolf plans to turn over decisions about mask-wearing to local school officials on Jan. 17.By Meghan Schiller

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP/KDKA) — The state intends on allowing school districts to make the rules on mask-wearing in January, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday.

The Democratic governor plans to turn over decisions about masking to local school officials on Jan. 17, although the acting health secretary’s mask mandate will remain in place for early learning programs and child care facilities.

READ MORE: State Rep. And Parents Sue 4 Westmoreland County School Districts To Stop Mandatory Masks For All School Children

“Now, we are in a different place than we were in September, and it is time to prepare for a transition back to a more normal setting,” Wolf said in a press release. ”Unfortunately, the COVID-19 virus is now a part of our daily lives, but with the knowledge we’ve gained over the past 20 months and critical tools like the vaccine at our disposal, we must take the next step forward in our recovery.”

The Wolf administration imposed a statewide mandate in early September, citing a surge in infections and hospitalizations from the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus. The order from acting Health Secretary Alison Beam required that students, staff and visitors at K-12 schools and child care facilities wear masks while indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

The mandate sparked fierce backlash among some parents, and two lawsuits seeking to overturn it are pending.

The decision to end the statewide mandate comes days after federal officials approved the COVID-19 vaccine for children five and older.

Gov. Wolf had previously vowed local school officials would be empowered to make decisions on masking, but later reversed, saying a universal, statewide order was warranted amid a coronavirus surge in late summer, and after most of the state’s 500 districts did not impose their own masking requirements.

Two pending lawsuits assert the Wolf administration had no legal right to impose the statewide mandate. The plaintiffs — among them the top leader of the state Senate, President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre — include parents who contend that masks interfere with their children’s breathing and cause other problems. Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court heard arguments in the suits last month but has yet to rule.

Beam’s order said school officials who do not enforce masking may face criminal penalties and could lose immunity from civil lawsuits.

One Beaver County mom said she’s not sure this is a good idea.

“My kids do pretty good with the masks because we’ve been wearing them for over two years now because of everything going on with COVID,” said Jamie Quigley.

Quigley sends her daughters to Beaver School District. She will likely vaccinate at least two of her three children but knows not everyone will do the same.

“Other parents don’t want their kids vaccinated so if you’re not vaccinated and kids aren’t wearing a mask, that’s not good,” said Quigley.

READ MORE: Commonwealth Court Of Pennsylvania Hears Arguments Over School Mask Mandate

Wolf did not specify why he picked Jan. 17.

“My question, I guess, is why are we waiting until January 17?” asked attorney Al Lindsay from the Lindsay Law Firm. “What is the difference? What does he know now that’s going to change by January 17? That is typical of this administration, that they seem to just wield these edicts down regardless of the impact it has on people, regardless of how problematical it is for specific school districts.”

The Butler attorney recently filed a federal lawsuit over the state’s mask mandates, representing 10 different families across our area.

“As far as it affects our litigation, I don’t think it affects our litigation at all. We want these mask mandates lifted with regard to our clients who are people with disabilities who can’t wear masks.”

They’re also people he said can’t get exemptions from their doctors due to what he calls a blanket “no” from the main healthcare providers in our area.

The Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus Spokesperson Jason Gottesman sent a statement in response to the Wolf administration’s announcement, saying:

“Back in May, Gov. Wolf told us when Pennsylvania reached a 70 percent vaccination rate, statewide mask mandates would be over. He failed to live up to his promise in September with his administration’s school mask mandate. Waiting to lift that edict until January—what seems like an arbitrary time in the future—further delays fulfilling that promise.

“To make matters even worse, before the current school mask mandate was issued, local control was working through contentious, but productive input at the local level. The decision today would have the unfortunate impact of forcing these local elected leaders, many of whom are newly elected, into the trying circumstance of relitigating these already-made decisions.

“Now that a COVID-19 vaccine is available for the vast majority of school-aged children, this ill-advised statewide mask mandate for children should be lifted immediately at all levels and the previous decisions of local elected officials should be respected unless they wish to change it themselves.”

On Monday, the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, praised the governor’s decision, saying it makes sense given the availability of the vaccines for staff and now most students and they look forward to returning schools to normal.

Gov. Tom Wolf encouraged families to take safety measures to protect children, like getting vaccinated. Vaccine providers can be found here.

MORE NEWS: Allegheny County Councilmember Makes Another Push For Mandatory Mask-Wearing

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Meghan Schiller