PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee and one of his rivals, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, are clashing over the increasingly fraught question of whether the state should mandate universal masking in Rhode Island schools to limit the spread of the delta variant.

At a news conference Tuesday, McKee said he wasn’t ready to take that step, indicating he thinks the issue should be decided by local districts, many of which are currently wrestling with the idea at sometimes-contentious School Committee meetings.

“We may have the authority in the governor’s office to do another mandate, but we may not,” he said. “But we know the Health Department does, if it rises to a level of a critical nature in terms of a health issue, so we’ll review that. I’m sure that the Health Department will be reviewing that.”

Larry Berman, a spokesperson for General Assembly leaders, said Wednesday that the governor “maintains his executive authority in matters of health and safety,” and indicated lawmakers will support whatever decision he and the R.I. Department of Health make about masking in schools.

On Wednesday, Gorbea argued the governor should take the lead on the issue.

“One of the most important roles of government is to protect people and leadership means making tough decisions,” Gorbea said in a statement. “In failing to call for a mask mandate in our schools, Governor McKee is putting our kids and educators at risk.”

Gorbea, a second-term Democrat, cited the fact that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics are both in favor of masks in schools since children ages 11 and under cannot get vaccinated currently.

“As a mother of three children, nothing is more important than keeping our children healthy and safe,” she said. “A statewide mask mandate in our schools is the right thing for our children, our educators and our state.”

McKee succeeded Gina Raimondo in March and plans to run for a full term in 2022. Gorbea announced in June she plans to challenge him in next year’s Democratic primary.

Another likely McKee rival, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, quickly echoed Gorbea and joined in calling on McKee to order “a statewide mask mandate for school this fall.” He too cited the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation.

“We need to follow the science, and the facts are that the Delta variant is spreading quickly and many students are still not vaccinated,” Magaziner said in a statement.

But Mike Trainor, a spokesperson for McKee’s re-election campaign, dismissed the secretary of state’s suggestion.

“While we understand Secretary Gorbea’s political need for relevance around this issue, the simple truth is that she does not have access to the national and local reservoir of data and medical/science resources that the McKee administration has had as it continues to monitor this particular issue,” Trainor said.

He added, “It is unfortunate that she is choosing to politicize an issue as important as this.”

The Rhode Island chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics spoke out in favor of universal masking in schools earlier this week. “We have voiced our recommendation to state and education leaders,” the group wrote in a Facebook post.

In a letter to superintendents obtained by 12 News, the pediatricians urged that in addition to masking, all eligible individuals should get vaccinated. McKee said Tuesday he opposes making vaccinations mandatory for teachers, saying more than 90% of them have gotten a shot without a requirement.

Ted Nesi ( is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.