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To mask or not in schools? Long Island students offer their perspectives

Students in some Long Island school districts are increasingly refusing to wear masks, a shift in an issue that largely has played out among parents at rallies and school board meetings, according to students and school officials.

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In recent days, students in districts including Riverhead and West Islip were sent home or isolated from other students over their refusal to wear face coverings. Some students in Cold Spring Harbor held a walkout. But the majority of Long Island students continue to follow the state’s indoor mask mandate, districts said.

What to know

Students in some Long Island school districts are increasingly refusing to wear masks.

In recent days, students in districts including Riverhead, West Islip and Cold Spring Harbor were sent home or isolated from other students over their refusal to wear face coverings.

The majority of Long Island students continue to follow the state’s indoor mask mandate, districts said.

Students in New York State have been wearing masks indoors since September 2020.

The masking issue extends across the country, and this latest flashpoint comes as the United States nears 900,000 COVID-19 deaths while entering the third year of masking, vaccinations and other coronavirus mandates.

A “small number” of students held a walkout at Cold Spring Harbor High School on Thursday, the school said in a statement. Several students refused to wear masks in the West Islip district on Thursday and Friday and were offered a separate location in school to do their work, school officials said in a statement.

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The superintendents in Cold Spring Harbor and West Islip declined requests for interviews Friday.

In Riverhead, the number of students refusing to wear masks escalated through last week, Superintendent Augustine Tornatore said. In the high school, the number of students who refused increased from five on Tuesday to 16 on Friday. The middle school had 10 students objecting Wednesday and Thursday, and 11 on Friday, he said.

The students were placed in a room separate from the school body, given their schoolwork and lunch, he said.

“We’re trying to work with them,” Tornatore said. “Out of a district of nearly 6,000 students, it was a really small number.”

On Thursday, a group of parents and students held a protest outside Riverhead High School, students said.

Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said he is seeing signs of students becoming more engaged in the contentious fight over school masking. He attributed the shift to a ruling Jan. 24 by a Nassau County Supreme Court judge that declared the state’s mask mandate to be unconstitutional. That decision was followed by an appeals court judge issuing a stay the following day, which kept the mandate in effect until it is resolved in court.

“That certainly elevated the issue, particularly on Long Island,” Lowry said. He also pointed to the “mounting, accumulating frustration” with the pandemic.

Lowry said he believes the great majority of students continue to abide by the mandate.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has said that the mandate expires on Feb. 21, and if it is not extended, school districts can decide the matter for themselves.

The Massapequa Board of Education already has: It voted to halt enforcement of mask-wearing in its schools when the mandate expires.

Assessing the situation in Long Island’s 124 school districts is challenging, considering that each has its own superintendent and school board making decisions. Student accounts indicate that the students’ views on masking remains starkly different in different districts, with some showing rising objections to masks, whereas others remain calm and accepting of the policy.

The heads of the Nassau and Suffolk associations of school superintendents — Tonie McDonald of Levittown and Yiendhy Farrelly of West Babylon, respectively — were unavailable for interviews Friday.

Student opinions about masking mixed

Students, for their part, remain on the front lines of the masking battle.

Bhavana Madini, an eighth-grader at Plainview-Old Bethpage Middle School, said she’s not seeing students in her school strongly objecting to the masks.

“I think everyone at my school has adjusted to masks,” said Madini, 13. “It’s beneficial and keeps us all safe. I think it’s something we all need to do.”

Madini, who said she is fully vaccinated, fears if masks are not worn, schools would return to remote learning, which has been greatly criticized. She did the 2020-21 term remotely because her parents felt schools were not safe enough.

“I couldn’t see my friends,” she said.

But Kayla Reitz, a senior at Riverhead High School, sees the issue very differently.

“You cannot breathe properly, especially in gym. I had COVID. I had no symptoms. Why should I have to wear a mask?,” said Reitz, 17.

Reitz said she joined the mask protest outside her school on Thursday. Her classes ended at 11:30 a.m., but when she tried to exit the building, she said she was stopped by a school security guard, who told her she couldn’t.

“I went around him and pushed the door open myself,” she said. She said the rally had about 40 people holdings signs and flags, mostly parents and some students.

Reitz said she and some other students have been silently protesting the mask policy by not wearing their masks properly during school hours, letting the face coverings fall below their chin.

Beyond that, she said mask-wearing has driven a wedge between students who support the practice and those who oppose it.

“It’s definitely become more of an issue now,” Reitz said, adding that she sees more students joining those who don’t want to wear masks. “Honestly I feel there hasn’t been enough research done on [wearing masks] to have it enforced. It should be a choice.”

Health experts recommend masks

Health experts continue to reiterate the importance of wearing face coverings to minimize transmission of COVID-19.

“As the numbers start to decrease and people get lax, we are still seeing COVID and people getting sick,” Dr. Frederick Davis, associate chair of emergency medicine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. “We still want to remain vigilant. Let’s wait a little longer.”

Meanwhile, the rapidly spreading omicron variant of the virus has struck children harder than prior variants, health experts said.

Some children, even youngsters, have developed strong opinions about masking.

First-grader Owen Birong can rattle off a long list of reasons why he shouldn’t wear a mask.

“I can’t breathe. I keep getting rashes. The mask hurts your ears, and I can’t hear the teacher,” said Owen, 7, of Carle Place.

Seventh-grader James Baker, however, stands on the side of those who believe the mask helps cut down the spread of the virus.

“I don’t exactly like it, but I have to do it to protect those around me,” said Baker, 13, of Brentwood. “Sometimes it’s hard to breathe. … I’ve gotten used to it.”

On Long Island, in Nassau, 37.7% of children 5-11 years old, and 82.1% of those 12-17, are fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health.

In Suffolk, 25.5% of children ages 5-11 years old, and 65.9% of those 12-17 are fully vaccinated, the agency said.

Many young people, in making decisions about masking, echo the sentiments of their parents, said Debra Reicher, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Stony Brook University.

“Kids basically model what their parents tell them,” Reicher said.

As for any emotional damage to children from wearing masks, she said, “It’s hard to parse out wearing masks from the collective impacts of the pandemic.”

Molly Parsons, an eighth-grader at Riverhead Middle School, said she accompanied her mother to a rally in Albany this month opposing masks. She also was among about a dozen students who refused to wear masks Thursday and were placed in a separate room.

“Altogether, we feel forced and segregated,” she said. “I think the masks don’t work.”

Tornatore, the Riverhead superintendent, said he has met with some parents who oppose the masks.

“They disagreed with my position, but we still have a high infection rate,” he said. “My job is to protect the children.”

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