By Stephanie Stahl

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Mask mandates in Pennsylvania schools could be ending in a matter of months. Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday the state will no longer require mask mandates in schools as of Jan. 17, 2022.

At that point, decisions about masking will be made at the local level.

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Gov. Wolf says it’s time to start getting back to normal. In a statement released late Monday, he said that can start happening because of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is now available to younger children.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced Monday that local school districts will be able to decide on a mask requirement when the statewide mandate expires on Jan. 17.

His statement read in part:

“Now, we are in a different place than we were in September, and it is time to prepare for a transition back to a more normal setting. … With the knowledge we’ve gained over the past 20 months and critical tools like the vaccine at our disposal, we must take the next step forward in our recovery. I strongly encourage parents to take safety measures to protect your children and your family – like getting vaccinated.” 

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“Every day we’re getting more people vaccinated, we’re also getting kids vaccinated now and that should put us in a much different place as we get past the holidays,” Acting Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson said.

State officials did not comment on protests and lawsuits regarding mask mandates in Pennsylvania. The acting physician general ironically said the state still recommends following CDC guidance, which says masks should be worn by everyone in schools.

The big emphasis is on the vaccine, which is now approved for everyone over the age of 5. 72.5% of Pennsylvanians over 18 are fully vaccinated. COVID infections are still spreading; there were 11,500 new cases in the past three days.

The infection rate is nearly three times greater for school-age children 5 to 18 this year compared to last with 4,918 cases in the last month compared to 1,683 cases last year.

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A spokesperson from the Lower Merion School District said it was too early to know if the governor’s announcement would change its safety plan.

Stephanie Stahl