Ryan Brown

Ryan Brown

As students prepare for the fall semester and COVID-19 cases tick up, school mask rules are fast becoming the latest front in the war over pandemic policy.

Lawmakers are proposing state laws to govern mask policy, while angry parents pack school board meetings and clash over rules intended to halt the pandemic’s renewed spread. State officials haven’t issued mandates for students, leaving a patchwork of district policies and clashing bills in Harrisburg.

“We believe that parents and legal guardians have the fundamental right to make health and educational decisions that are best-suited for their children,” said Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, and Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams, in a memo calling for an opt-out school mask policy.

Ward and Mastriano haven’t yet filed text for the proposal, but they said students who don’t wear masks should be seated normally and allowed to participate fully in school activities. The senators included a list of mask-wearing effects they claim parents have cited, including “learning impairment.”

Some districts – citing the spread of the coronavirus delta variant – have issued temporary rules requiring all students to wear masks when the academic year begins. More than 200 children are being hospitalized with COVID-19 each day across the country, particularly in regions with lower vaccination rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Videos have circulated across the state of raucous board meetings, with some parents arguing for mask mandates and others demanding exemptions.

Across the aisle, Democratic Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Delaware, has made his own proposal: Allowing parents of children sickened by the virus to sue the parents of classmates who refuse masks. He compared the proposal to truancy laws that hold parents accountable for their kids’ behavior.

“My hope is that this legislation is ultimately unnecessary,” Williams wrote, “but given the anemic vaccination rates in many parts of the commonwealth it is vital to ensuring the safety of school children.”

Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf declined to issue a statewide rule on masks for students. In some GOP-controlled states, including Texas, officials have sought to ban school mask mandates outright.

Renters move to stave off evictions

Renters across the state face legal uncertainty as a patchwork of federal and local protections holds back a feared eviction crisis.

At the start of August, federal pandemic protections for renters briefly expired, leaving a swirl of questions as property owners in some areas filed to remove tenants. President Joe Biden’s administration then issued a new order protecting renters in areas where coronavirus is spreading more swiftly.

That leaves a complex map: In the state’s most populous counties and many surrounding areas, tenants can still avoid eviction if they claim pandemic protections. And even in some counties where federal protections no longer apply, local court orders have held back evictions temporarily.

Protections can change week to week, as well, as Centers for Disease Control officials study statistics and update their pandemic maps.

All this could end if legal challenges prove successful. Groups representing landlords have already filed challenges against Biden’s new order, while tenant rights groups have rushed to secure more protections through Pennsylvania courts.

The fight over evictions continues as hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds await distribution to Pennsylvania tenants and landlords who can’t make payments. The relief funds average $6,000 for approved households, acting Human Services Secretary Meg Snead told Spotlight PA.

Bill mandates election time off

Lawmakers aren’t set to return to Harrisburg until fall, but some are already working to carve out new election laws when they get back.

While Wolf and GOP leaders negotiate an election bill through speeches and press releases, Sen. John Kane, D-Chester, is proposing time off for Pennsylvanians to vote.

Last week, Kane said he will introduce a bill that would make Election Day a state and municipal holiday, while requiring private employers to offer two hours’ unpaid leave for voting. Those that fail to offer the time off would face a $1,000 fine.

“Pennsylvanians holding jobs with rigid schedules, long commutes and lengthy workdays often face limited opportunities to vote, and long lines at their polling places in the short window they have to do so,” he said.

The proposal is one of several circulating in Harrisburg as politicians move in fits and starts toward a new election law. Republicans have demanded a voter ID requirement and tougher registration timeframes, drawing opposition from Wolf and his allies.

An attempt to pass a sweeping election law failed before the summer recess.

Ryan Brown covers statewide politics for Ogden Newspapers. He can be reached at rbrown@altoonamirror.com.

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