Gov. Kathy Hochul appears likely to make a final decision on the future of a mask mandate for schools after winter break, which ends on Feb. 25, according to educators who attended an online meeting with her on Tuesday.
That would extend the requirement for at least a matter of days beyond its current Feb. 21 expiration date.
Education leaders, including Long Islanders who participated in the conference, said the governor made it clear that a change in masking requirements was under consideration.
At the same time, Hochul has said she will announce on Wednesday her decision on a separate mandate requiring masks or proof of vaccination in public indoor places including restaurants, stores, gyms and theaters.
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Source: New York State Department of Health
Participants in the meeting with educators on Tuesday said it appeared a final decision on the mask mandate in schools would be reached at the end of winter break, which begins on Feb. 21, so that health analysts can determine whether or not student vacations produced any upsurge in COVID-19 infections.
“It’s refreshing to know that the governor takes this decision so seriously that, prior to making the decision, she is seeking the views of the education community,” said Jay Worona, deputy executive director and general counsel to the New York State School Boards Association.
Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk Association of School Boards, agreed with Worona.
“As important decisions pertaining to COVID-19 are being formulated, it is significant that the governor reached out to the education community to elicit input and concerns,” Deller said.
Some neighboring states including New Jersey and Connecticut are moving to end their school mask mandates by late February or early March.
Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, also praised the governor’s willingness to reach out to school leaders before reaching a decision. Lowry noted, however, that public pressures to ease mask requirements are rising statewide and on the Island.
“There are mounting tensions within schools across the state,” Lowry said. “We are seeing signs of growing frustration among parents on Long Island and elsewhere who have accepted mask requirements in the past.”
School superintendents, both on Long Island and statewide, are pressing state authorities for clearer guidelines on when mask mandates might be eased for students and teachers alike. In recent days, students in several local districts including Riverhead, West Islip and Cold Spring Harbor have refused to wear face coverings or held walkouts — a sign of unrest with masking rules.
That could grow further, school officials have warned, unless parents and others are provided with an “off ramp” — that is, a sense of when and under what circumstances mask restrictions might be relaxed.
“Absent this clarity, families might assume that current rules and regulations will continue in perpetuity,” representatives of a statewide superintendents’ association cautioned in a letter released last week after being submitted to state health officials.
The letter to the governor’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, was co-signed by Phyllis Harrington, superintendent of Oceanside schools and president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. The council’s executive director, Charles Dedrick, also signed.
The council represents more than 875 schools chiefs and other administrators statewide.
Specifically, what superintendents seek from the state are “reasonable, understandable and achievable metrics” — for example, data based on trends in COVID-19 infection rates, vaccinations and the like — that could serve as indicators of when the state and its regions are ready for changes in face-covering rules. Such metrics would be based on recommendations of health professionals.
Superintendents noted that health-precaution rules, while necessary, have caused great stress.
“Students in New York and across the country have experienced a roller coaster 23-months as they have gone from remote education, to hybrid, to almost universal in-person learning that is interrupted by periodic quarantines of students and staff,” Harrington and Dedrick declared in their letter. “We believe we have now reached the time where the state needs to transition schools out from a pandemic learning environment.”
Hochul’s decision on the schools will have many repercussions, medical experts said. It is the focus of heated debate among some parents who want the masks gone, and others including doctors who are urging caution — though many agree the masks possibly can be safely dropped when the weather warms up this spring.
Schoolchildren in New York have worn masks since returning to in-person learning in September 2020.
Medical experts said Tuesday that dropping the mask mandate for schools too soon could lead to many students having to isolate at home — with parents pulled out of work to care for them.
In New York State, about 30% of children between the ages of 5 and 11 have received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, while about 70% between the ages of 12 and 17 have done so, according to the CDC.
“The first thing that I think is likely to happen is that there’s going to be a lot of parents left to care for their kids because their classrooms are closing, and we’ve seen that actually,” with day cares on Long Island during the Christmas break, said Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University.
The scenario could also go beyond an infected child’s classroom and into the cafeteria, for instance, if large groups of unmasked children are permitted to eat together, he said.
“It’s possible that an exposure to one COVID positive kid would ripple through the school,” he said.
Schools may also have to use more online instruction if more students have to isolate, he said.
Children who get infected with COVID-19 typically also give it to their parents or caretakers at home, he said.
Dr. Eve Melzter-Krief of Huntington Village Pediatrics said officials should proceed with caution in removing the mandate, and it should be well after children return to school Feb. 28 following the weeklong break during which some may travel and possibly get infected.
Ending the mandate “will remove one of the most effective mitigation measures we have besides vaccinations to protect children,” said Melzter-Krief, a member of the executive council of the Long Island-Brooklyn/Queens chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of public health and epidemiology for Northwell Health, said he believes there is a consensus building among medical experts and the public that the time is arriving for the mask mandate to be dropped.
It is “on the table” and “a legitimate thing to talk about,” Farber said.
But he said he hopes the governor waits until at least early March to drop the mandate.
Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Medicine, said that would give parents time to start vaccinating their children, since that will be their only protection once masks are eliminated.
Hochul said Monday if more students get vaccinated, that could speed up the timeline for dropping the mandate.
Check back for updates on this developing story.
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