Harrisburg, PA – In contrast to what some schools had planned, the PA Department of Health and Department of Education now say that students are required to wear face coverings at all times while at school.

That means that, even if students are placed at desks 6 or more feet away inside a classroom, they would still be required to wear a mask.

The Department of Education says this applies to all kids age 2 or older in public, private, charter, career and tech, PA Pre-K Counts, headstart, and other schools.

They do say there are specific times when students would be allowed to remove face covering, such as when they’re eating or drinking spaced at least 6 feet apart, when wearing a mask would be unsafe, or during certain “face-covering breaks” lasting no more than 10 minutes while students are spaced at least 6 feet apart.

The original guidelines had included other exceptions, such as students being able to remove masks when seated at desks 6 feet apart or when properly spaced out during activities like recess. That is no longer the case.

On July 9 when we originally reported the student masks requirements, these were the exceptions listed:

Eating or drinking when spaced at least 6 feet apart;
Seated at desks or assigned work spaces at least 6 feet apart; or
Engaged in any activity at least 6 feet apart (e.g. face covering breaks, recess, etc.)

The new rules mean the schools must require students to wear a mask, even if they are seated at desks 6 or more feet apart from each other.

This new adjustment to the order is a slight change from before, as many schools had already made plans to meet the original requirements by simply spacing out students far enough that they wouldn’t have to wear their masks all the time. Again, this is no longer the case.

As the start of the new school year draws closer, about a week away, it’s yet another time when school districts will have to quickly rethink their policies.

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The section of the PA Department of Health FAQs about students and mask wearing:

Does the Order of the Secretary of the PA Department of Health Requiring Universal Face Coverings apply to children and adults while in schools?

Yes, this order applies to all students, staff and visitors age two and older while in school entities, including public K-12 schools, brick and mortar and cyber charter schools, private and parochial schools, career and technical centers (CTCs), intermediate units (IUs); educational programming for students in non-educational placements such as residential settings (boarding schools), residential facilities, detention centers, and hospital settings; PA Pre-K Counts, Head Start Programs and Preschool Early Intervention programs; and Private Academic Nursery Schools and locally funded prekindergarten activities.

The Order was effective July 1, 2020 and will remain in effect until the Secretary of Health determines the public health risk is sufficiently reduced so that face coverings are no longer necessary as a widely utilized public health tool.

For the safety of students, staff and families and to avoid community spread of COVID-19, students and staff are considered to be members of the public who are congregating in indoor locations. As such, they are required to adhere to this Order.

The order is effective immediately and applies to all children aged two and older.

Under what circumstances are students permitted to remove their face coverings (e.g. masks and face shields)?

Schools may allow students to remove face coverings when students are:

  • Eating or drinking when spaced at least 6 feet apart; or
  • When wearing a face covering creates an unsafe condition in which to operate equipment or execute a task; or
  • At least 6 feet apart during “face-covering breaks” to last no longer than 10 minutes.

Do students with disabilities need to wear face coverings?

Children two years and older are required to wear a face covering unless they have a medical or mental health condition or disability, documented in accordance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or IDEA, that precludes the wearing of a face covering in school. Accommodations for such students should be made in partnership with the student’s health care provider, school nurse, and IEP/504 team.

When does my child have to wear a mask? 

Children 2 years old and older are required to wear a face covering as described in the Order, unless they fit one of the exceptions included in Section 3 of the Order.

If a child is outdoors and able to consistently maintain a social distance of at least 6 feet from individuals who are not a part of their household, they do not need to wear a mask.

If a parent, guardian, or responsible person has been unable to place a face covering safely on the child’s face, they should not do so.

If a child 2 years old or older is unable to remove a face covering without assistance, the child is not required to wear one.

The Department recognizes that getting younger children to be comfortable wearing face coverings and to keep them on may create some difficulties. Under these circumstances, parents, guardians, licensed child care providers in community-based and school settings or responsible persons may consider prioritizing the wearing of face coverings to times when it is difficult for the child to maintain a social distance of at least 6 feet from others who are not a part of their household  (e.g., during carpool drop off or pick up, or when standing in line at school).  Ensuring proper face covering size and fit and providing children with frequent reminders and education on the importance and proper wearing of cloth face coverings may help address these issues.

Do staff and children in child care facilities need to wear face coverings?

All staff must wear face coverings during child care operations.

The Department recognizes that getting younger children to be comfortable wearing face coverings and to keep them on may create some difficulties. Under these circumstances, parents, guardians, licensed child care providers in community-based and school settings or responsible persons may consider prioritizing the wearing of face coverings to times when it is difficult for the child to maintain a social distance of at least 6 feet from others who are not a part of their household  (e.g., during carpool drop off or pick up, or when standing in line at school).  Ensuring proper face covering size and fit and providing children with frequent reminders and education on the importance and proper wearing of cloth face coverings may help address these issues.

Any child who cannot wear a face covering due to a medical condition, including those with respiratory issues that impede breathing, a mental health condition, or disability, and children who would be unable to remove a face covering without assistance, are not required to wear face coverings. Individuals who are communicating or seeking to communicate with someone who is hearing impaired or who has another disability, where the ability to see the mouth is essential to communication, also are not required to wear a mask. Other face coverings, such as plastic face shields, may also accommodate such disabilities.