Pennsylvania Capitol Building in Harrisburg

This Wednesday, April 10, 2019, file photo, shows the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Both chambers of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly will return on Monday to the Capitol for an early start to the fall legislative session, and responding to Gov. Tom Wolf’s school mask mandate will likely be on lawmakers’ agenda, though legislative leaders are stopping short of saying exactly how they plan to respond.

Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said Friday that lawmakers are still sorting out how they’d like to respond to the state’s requirement that K-12 students, teachers and staff wear masks while in school.

“While we will be discussing a legislative response to the latest unilateral mandate issued by the Wolf administration, the specifics are still coming together,” he said. “Anything we take up will acknowledge our long-standing belief that these decisions should be made by local control and not statewide mandate.”

Other issues that could command attention next week include the expiring disaster emergency declaration relative to Tropical Storm Ida, starting the process of regulatory reform stemming from waived or suspended regulations dating back to the beginning of the pandemic, and taking up issues related to the opioid addiction and overdose epidemic, Gottesman said.

The House wasn’t supposed to be back in session until later in September, but adjusted its voting schedule after Wolf and Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam enacted the statewide mask order.

Wolf has already expressed his opposition to any effort by Republicans, who hold the majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, to undo the mask mandate or otherwise limit his administration’s powers to respond to the pandemic. Wolf has already used his veto pen once this year to spike legislation, Senate Bill 618, that would have barred government agencies from requiring people to get vaccinated to get services.

“We need Republicans to stop spending their time undermining public health and instead encourage people to get vaccinated,” said Wolf’s spokeswoman, Lyndsay Kensinger.

Wolf had originally said he’d leave the decision about mask mandates to local school boards, but changed his mind after he said it appeared that many local school boards were being bullied into refusing to enact mask mandates by people opposed to such requirements.

A group of health care providers and child protection advocacy groups released a statement Friday condemning language from mask-mandate critics equating mask mandates with child abuse, saying that the rhetoric diminishes the trauma endured by children who are actually experiencing abuse.

“We understand that, collectively as a society, we are under stress, and this global pandemic and the needed mitigation strategies have frayed our nerves and patience,” the groups said in a “consensus statement” provided to the media. “Clearly, we also are living through a highly politicized period in which discussions and decision-making are not nearly as thoughtful and respectful as they ought to be or that our children rightly deserved.”

Cathleen Palm, the founder of the Center for Children’s Justice in Reading, said that parents may disagree about whether their children need to wear face coverings, but that most advocates see masks as a necessary public health measure.

“It’s about public health strategies,” she said. “It’s about prevention. There’s a reason kids babies go in car seats. Now, there’s a reason we use seatbelts. There’s a reason we use smoke detectors. They all are tools for keeping kids safe.

“That said, you know, people are going to disagree, and parents are going to have differences of opinion as to whether their child does or does not need to be masked. That is for each family to decide, and to continue to make their point, obviously, where they want to make it. But you know, you can’t do that and manipulate abused kids in the process.”

The Health Committee in the state House has already voted along party lines to seek to have the mask mandate order handled as a regulatory change, which would take months to be approved, rather than as an order that is already in place.

House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said the request for the Joint Committee on Documents to intervene was intended to rein in an overreach of power by Wolf and Beam.

“This letter is not a vote for or against masking, or vaccines, or any other mitigation measure,” he said. “It’s about recognizing a continuing pattern of this administration abusing the delicate balance of power that our Constitution creates, which vests the General Assembly with the authority and responsibility to make laws and policies.”

The Joint Committee on Documents could vote on that request, but that meeting isn’t scheduled until Oct. 18, according to information provided by House Republicans. Most of the members of that committee are also either Democrats or officials appointed by Wolf.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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