Mask up? That’s the advice of Pennsylvania’s largest teachers union, which is now calling for school districts to mandate masks for students and faculty as fears grow over the COVID-19 delta variant. 

In a statement released Wednesday, Pennsylvania State Education Association President Rich Askey said masks are crucial to limiting COVID-19 outbreaks in schools and keeping them open for in-person learning – and that schools should require them for the safety of students and staff. 

“PSEA wants to see every school in the state start the school year in person, continue in person, and finish in person,” Askey said. “That is why PSEA strongly encourages every school district in Pennsylvania to require students and staff to wear masks in school buildings as part of a multi-layered approach to keeping our schools safe and open for in-person instruction, along with other measures like social distancing and promoting vaccination where possible.”

Thus far, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration has not re-instituted any mask mandates, including requirements for school districts. His administration has maintained that school districts have the ability to implement stricter requirements as they see fit. That comes despite new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommends universal indoor masking for all students age 2 and older, as well as for staff, teachers and visitors. 

The CDC guidance also recommends that students should practice social distancing, leaving at least three feet of space between themselves and other students. 

Askey said the schools need to follow the CDC guidance given that most children are not vaccinated, and that they are also more susceptible to the delta variant than other strains of the virus.

“We are at a crossroads, and what our schools decide now will set the stage for what this school year looks like,” Askey said. “If we’re going to be able to keep our schools open for in-person instruction all year, we need to make the right decisions now.”

Some Republican state lawmakers, meanwhile, are seeking support for legislation that would allow parents to opt-out of school mask mandates. State Sens. Doug Mastriano and Judy Ward, in a memo to colleagues, argue that parents and guardians “have the fundamental right to make health and educational decisions that are best suited for their children.”

The statewide discussion over mask mandates has intensified as Pennsylvania – as well as the nation – experiences an increase in new COVID-19 infections due to the delta variant. Philadelphia officials announced last week that they are reimposing indoor mask requirements at businesses and other indoor locations, while othermunicipalities have moved to require masks in government-owned buildings. 

The state recorded more than 2,000 new COVID-19 infections on Wednesday; state health officials also say the 14-day moving averages of hospitalizations continues to increase.