A day after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said that New York students must still wear masks in school buildings, parents at a Smithtown Central School District board meeting rebuked school leaders for not doing more to overturn the directive.
“Masked children are quiet, obedient and rule-following,” said one parent, describing what she said was “an environment of fear-conditioning and medical tyranny” in schools. Another parent likened enforced mask wearing to child abuse. A man taunted administrators and board members for wearing “face diapers.”
The Tuesday night meeting came after parents and educators across Long Island whipsawed in reaction to announcements from the state about mask requirements. The state had said last Friday that it planned to lift mask rules on Monday. On Monday, Cuomo said the state had pulled back from that plan after speaking with federal health officials.
Some district administrators last week announced possible easing of mask requirements only to reverse themselves after Monday’s announcement by the governor. Smithtown Superintendent Mark Secaur openly criticized the state’s actions in a June 7 letter to families in which he said he shared their “frustration with the poor communication that took place at the state level.” Anti-mask protests had already sprung up in Hauppauge, Kings Park and Middle Country.
Districts’ autonomy is limited, and on Wednesday a spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Health, Jill Montag, said in an email to Newsday that “pre-K to Grade 12 schools must comply with DOH guidance in order to be authorized to remain open for in-person instruction. If a district is not following the masking requirements of the Department’s guidance, local health departments are the entities charged with enforcing these requirements.”
Secaur and other district leaders began Tuesday’s meeting with an appeal for comity, announcing appointment of a community liaison and pledging to “hear the concerns of constituents with an open mind.”
But he warned meeting participants about the consequences of crossing Albany. “We are in jeopardy of losing state aid, being fined and, frankly, closing schools.” The district has already tried to make mask wearing as comfortable as possible, allowing mask breaks and mask-free outdoor activities and removing plastic barriers in classrooms, he said. Planned end-of-year activities like prom and graduation will be held outdoors and maskless.
One attendee, Bernadette Ackerman, praised the board, saying they had “navigated this crisis using data, science and facts.”
But in Smithtown, a community already riven by a contested school board election in May in which three incumbents were ousted and before that by debates over the district’s diversity efforts, a segment of the community remains deeply mistrustful of both state and district leadership.
Later in the public participation portion of the meeting, a parent demanded lawsuits against the state. At one point the noise and heckling grew so loud that the board president recessed the meeting for 10 minutes.
John Savoretti, one of three newly elected school board members endorsed by conservatives, told the crowd that “by the time you get a lawyer involved … masks will already be gone and the school year will be over.” He suggested instead that parents email their displeasure to the governor.