Mask mandate temporarily overturned

Until now, students had not been allowed to enter the school without a mask since March 2020.

On Wed. Nov. 10, the Norwin School District changed course on its mask mandate and reverted to its Health & Safety Plan adopted prior to the school year.  Students will now have the choice to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status.

NHS Newspaper Students

On Wed. Nov. 10, the Norwin School District changed course on its mask mandate and reverted to its Health & Safety Plan adopted prior to the school year. Students will now have the “choice” to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status.

     On Wednesday, Nov. 10, the Norwin School District changed its policy on mask-wearing again.

     Through an afternoon email, Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Taylor confirmed that the district would be moving back to the health and safety plan approved before the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, a system that allowed students to “choose” whether or not to wear face coverings on campus. 

     Even before Norwin students’ first day of school, the district approved “mask choice” policy was temporarily negated when Pennsylvania’s acting health secretary, Allison Beam, issued an order stating that all students would be required to wear masks in school, even if they had received the COVID-19 vaccine. The secretary’s move provoked months-long disapproval and opposition, and on Wednesday, Nov. 10, a commonwealth court ruled that due to a lack of authority on secretary Beam’s part, her masking order was “null” and “unenforceable”; Beam had passed the order without a disaster emergency declaration by Governor Wolf, which the judge ruled was out of her authority.

Results from poll of Norwin students on Nov. 16, 2021 concerning the mask policy at the school. (Knight Krier poll (11/16/21))

     Wolf’s team reacted swiftly to the news, immediately appealing the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which ultimately put the decision on hold. Thus, until further ruling from the PA Supreme Court appeals process, the mandate is still technically in effect, which places Norwin and some other districts that decided to move to a mask-optional policy in an contentious spot.

     “At this time, the District is seeking a legal review of the mask requirement in K-12 schools,” said pandemic coordinator Dr. Heather Newell in an email reply on Nov. 12 to a Knight Krier reporter. “We are consulting with the District Solicitor to understand how this review may impact the current Health and Safety Plan. The District will provide updated information about mask wearing in school as soon as possible.”

     Because of the appeal, many districts in the area decided to remain in a state of mask-wearing enforcement, but Norwin, along with others in central and eastern parts of the state, moved as quickly as possible to change their policies. In October, the district, along with three others, was sued by parents and a state representative for their masking rules due to “violation of constitutional rights,” despite the fact that the decision came from the state level.

     News of the return to a mask-optional system was met with a mixed reaction from many students and parents.

     “It was a long time coming,” said Norwin junior Nick Vargo. “It should have been our choice from the beginning.”

     Some were not so pleased with the decision.

     “I think it’s completely stupid,” said an anonymous junior. “If we are going to give a group of people a chance to not wear a mask, it should be the people that got vaccinated. Why would we let a school of over a thousand people unmask and put everyone at risk when you have a portion of people who actually did the right thing and got vaccinated?”

     The state’s mandate was originally set to end on Jan. 17, 2022, and Governor Wolf planned to give jurisdiction to individual districts when this period ended. However, if the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denies Wolf’s appeal, this change would arrive sooner than expected, and many schools would look virtually maskless going into the winter. Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 cases hit a peak in December of 2020, with the state reaching a 7-day average of over 10,000 cases. As the coldest season approaches, many are concerned with their safety in a new environment. 

     “I think it’s a shame that the mask mandate was repealed,” said junior Elizabeth Long. “Its end date was supposed to be in January. The winter is always the worst with illness and cases, so I would’ve preferred if the mask mandate lasted until or past then. I truly hope the mandate gets reinstated to keep everyone safe through these next few months.”

     One group to take a look at during this process is teachers. Ever since COVID-19 struck the United States in the first place, teachers have been affected arguably more than anyone by changes in instructional models and policy. This move, however, has largely been taken in stride.

     “It hasn’t really changed anything about my teaching,” said Mrs. Brentzel, a teacher at the high school. “A number of my students are still choosing to be masked, and some of them are choosing not to be masked, which is what they’re supposed to be allowed to do. Again, I think I’m fortunate because most of my classes are small enough that I can space students out a little bit more.”

     Of course, distancing and other safety policies is not just the teachers’ job; a lot of this responsibility also falls on the school itself. According to officials, just because the mask mandate has been dropped, it does not mean that safety protocols are becoming lax.

     “At all levels, the District is continuing to implement the mitigation strategies that have long been in place involving hand hygiene, cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing,” said Newell.

     One of the main efforts to “slow the spread” came not in the high school this year, but at the elementary level. Because most students in a K-6 setting did not have access to the COVID-19 vaccine at the beginning of the year, the district created masked and unmasked “cohorts,” which essentially meant that parents were able to choose whether their child learns with or without a mask; all the students who selected to be in the unmasked group would learn together, and vice versa. Now, despite the changes for K-12 students provided by the mask ruling, the district’s elementary and intermediate schools will keep a similar look.   

  “At all levels, the District is continuing to implement the mitigation strategies that have long been in place involving hand hygiene, cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing.”

— Dr. Heather Newell, pandemic coordinator


     “With regard to the elementary cohort setting, schedules and classroom groups will not change, meaning that the cohort structure will remain in place,” said Newell. “Some parents may feel differently about their cohort choice from what they submitted in the August survey, so teachers will remain responsive throughout the coming days to accommodate masked and unmasked students. At the elementary level, we will continue to distance students in classrooms to the extent possible. It will be important to allow some time and flexibility for classroom procedures to be established while students and their families make decisions about masking in school.”

     In addition to these situations, public transportation within the district will also stay unchanged; all students, staff and drivers on busses and vans will be required to wear face coverings in compliance with CDC guidelines and federal mandate. This stipulation created a bit of confusion on the first day that the mask-optional policy took effect, as some students were unaware that they were required to wear masks on the bus despite not having to wear one in the building.

     As for the future, it’s still up for discussion in the courts whether or not the mask mandate will become enforceable again. At the Nov. 15 School Board Meeting, the board passed the “Mask Choice” option with a vote of 7-2. Thus, as of today, Norwin continues to follow its mask choice policy regardless of the state appeal.

     If the appeal is successful, Norwin will have to return to a mask-wearing requirement in all settings. If not, this temporary state of limbo will become our new reality, and the community will be thrust into a new era of freedom not seen since before any of this ever happened. Further ruling will likely depend on the COVID-19 case numbers across Westmoreland County and the state of Pennsylvania, which presently are similar to last November’s Westmoreland County COVID numbers (2020 = Nov. 12th 7-day average of 117……… 2021 = Nov. 12th 7-day average of 153), and may or may not continue to trend upwards as the process of reopening reaches a near full extent.