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Thousands of students have requested schools in Pennsylvania to go mask-free amid fierce local protests over the state’s new face-covering mandate.

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The order, which took effect September 7 and applies to all K-12 schools and child care facilities in Pennsylvania, requires students, staff and visitors to wear masks inside school buildings, regardless of vaccination status. But an obvious loophole has made it easier for parents in some districts to request medical exemptions for their children. Those districts are using exemption forms that require nothing more than a parent’s signature.

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State officials are holding back, but it is unclear how far they will go to get districts to more strictly enforce the masking requirement. At least two lawsuits are seeking to overturn the mandate.

In a September 10 communication to all 500 Pennsylvania school districts, the Department of Education stressed that “no school institution permits parental sign-off without evidence that the student has a medical or mental health condition.” … is not in compliance with the Gana.” It said districts must determine eligibility in accordance with federal disability laws, and request medical documentation as they normally would.

Some school district officials say that if the Wolf administration needed a doctor’s support, it should have done so in a masking order.

Hamburg Area School District Superintendent Richard Mextorf said the state had put local authorities in a bind by abruptly reversing on masking, promising local controls before issuing a statewide mandate after many schools were already back in session. Gave.

“It’s very difficult when a school board says, ‘We’re going to make masks optional for kids,’ and then school starts and then the mandate comes. I think if we have before school starts Had the mandate been there, it would have been very clear,” he said. “All of a sudden it changed, and I think it pissed people off. … I think it’s handled as backwards as it possibly can.”

According to the superintendent, Hamburg’s board opted to sign a masking waiver without a doctor’s note to parents and 674 students, about 30% of the population, requested them.

Elsewhere, the percentage of students seeking discounts is lower. The Central Bucks school district outside Philadelphia — one of the state’s largest — said it has received more than 1,100 waiver requests, representing more than 5% of the student population. A spokesman said Friday that each of those students would have to be assessed for disability before the waiver was approved.

In the Quakertown Community School District, also in the Philadelphia area, 330 students, or 7% of the student body, have requested a waiver, which was granted as long as the form was properly completed and current, a spokesperson said. Gaya. In the Blue Mountains school district, which is neighboring Hamburg, 159 students, or more than 6% of the student body, have sought permission to go mask-free, the district said.

Some districts had previously accepted parental signatures as proof of medical necessity as a result of the Education Department’s September 10 warning.

The Laurel School District in Lawrence County said students who were previously exempt will have to secure a doctor’s pretext – or start wearing masks – on October 1.

“If you will, the state has now moved on,” Laurel Superintendent Leonard Rich said in a video message to parents and students. “That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

Timothy Gilesbach, attorney for several school districts in the Philadelphia area, said the masking order does not explicitly require a doctor’s note, but does use a legal term — “reasonable accommodation” — that indicates that the state is Requires districts to carefully evaluate all requests. , and don’t give a discount at the behest of the parents.

“That phrase gives us the key to the idea that there has to be a conversation. It’s not just someone saying, ‘I need this,'” he said. “I think part of the real struggle for school districts is that a lot of the kids asking for exemptions wore masks last year without issue.”

Some parents who oppose masks argue that they make it difficult for their children to breathe and equate to child abuse.

Since September 1, the state’s Childline Child Abuse Reporting Hotline has received about 50 reports related to masks in schools. There are approximately 1.7 million public school students in Pennsylvania.

“This shows that only a small number of people would unfairly compare wearing a mask to child abuse,” said Ali Fogarty, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Human Services. “Associating this life-saving measure with child abuse is an outrageous misrepresentation of a different, serious issue and may add to already limited resources.”

Dozens of Pennsylvania organizations — including Pediatrics, Public Health and Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment — also issued a denial of the child-abuse claim on Friday.

“Such claims undermine the harsh reality of child abuse and demonstrate a blatant disregard for the lifelong physical, emotional and economic impact of child abuse,” said the statement issued by the Center for Child Justice in Burnville. “Indeed, there is no resemblance between face coverings and actions that interfere with children’s airways.”

There is no scientific evidence to show that masks are harmful to children’s health.

Democratic Governor Tom Wolf has said a universal, statewide order was necessary because most Pennsylvania school districts did not impose their own mask mandates and the delta version of the coronavirus has increased COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Caused a statewide boom.

Far more school children in Pennsylvania are now testing positive for the virus. The state health department reported more than 7,200 infections among children aged 5 to 18 in the past week – more than 11 times the number of positive tests in the same period a year ago.