Schools are no exception to Pennsylvania’s mask mandate when classes resume later this month, but the state allows for exceptions when students can unmask.
According to a Department of Education online post answering frequently asked questions (FAQ) about returning to school, students can take off their face masks when eating or drinking, when seated at desks or assigned workspaces and when engaged in activities during breaks, recess and gym class — only when spaced at least 6 feet apart.
The exception, while maintaining distance, also applies when the mask creates an unsafe condition when performing a certain task, according to the FAQ.
“The schools are complying with the secretary’s order,” Nate Wardle, press secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said of the universal masking order issued July 1 by Dr. Rachel Levine.
“We know that children and teens may need breaks from their masks, and times where they are social distanced will allow for those,” Wardle said. “It is important to remember how COVID-19 is spread. It is most frequently spread through sustained contact with another person. This contact is within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes. So, while social distancing is occurring during mask-wearing breaks, this would not be of concern.”
These exceptions are included in Valley schools’ plans for reopening this month.
Superintendent Dan Lichtel of the Mifflinburg Area School District addressed the masking policy when reviewing the district’s reopening plan last week.
“Teachers will be asked to consider mask-free breaks and grouping out students so they may stay 6 feet apart so they won’t have to wear masks all day long,” Lichtel said.
Dr. Jennifer Polinchock, superintendent, Lewisburg Area School District, said younger kids will fidget with face coverings but may be more compliant to authority. It’s going to take conversations with older students to reinforce the state’s mandate and the reasoning behind it.
“You know that kids will try and take them off, so give them a time to look forward to: ‘five more minutes until the masking break,’” Polinchock said.
Dr. Swathi Gowtham, pediatric infectious diseases specialist, Geisinger, said wearing a mask is the “most effective tool” to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Gowtham advises parents to have their children practice wearing masks in the weeks leading up to the first day of class.
“Transmission of the virus is always less outdoors versus indoors but we know that isn’t always possible for a number of factors including weather, which is why it’s vital for everyone to be vigilant of the proper and responsible measures that need to be taken during those times to keep everyone safe,” Gowtham said. “If students and staff are unmasking, they should maintain 6 feet distancing regardless of whether it is outdoors or indoors. When eating or drinking without a mask, practicing social distancing and not sharing items are important.”