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Hauppauge school board to huddle on looming fight with state on masks

Parents and students take part in a May

Parents and students take part in a May 26 rally asking for a change in mask policy in schools in Hauppauge. Credit: Raychel Brightman

With a potential showdown looming, Hauppauge school board members will huddle Sunday with district lawyers to discuss a proposal to no longer require students and staff to wear masks in all situations. The Cuomo administration on Saturday reiterated that schools are required to follow its mask mandate to stay open.

Teachers will meet Tuesday on the plan that called for lifting the mask requirement the preceding day, said Kevin Giachetti, the president of the Hauppauge Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers.

Giachetti and school board president David Barshay on Thursday sent a letter to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker. It said that "beginning Monday June 14, we assume we will be able to no longer require that masks be worn by students and staff where other methods for safe social distancing are possible."

The letter requests that "if there is any data or science that you are aware of that contradicts our approach, please let us know."

State health department spokeswoman Jill Montag released a statement Saturday — identical to one she sent to Newsday several days ago in response to a controversy over masks in Smithtown — that states, "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."

Suffolk County officials Saturday did not return calls and emails on if — or how — they would enforce the mask mandate if Hauppauge defies it. Barshay said the state health department statement is "something I'll discuss with the rest of the board, the teachers and the attorneys." But, he said, in addition to the statement to Newsday, he hopes that the Cuomo administration will respond directly to the school district.

Barshay’s position conflicts with that of district Superintendent Dennis O’Hara, who said he was not consulted before the letter was sent and said that "masks should be worn to protect everybody in the school community," including those with medical conditions who are not vaccinated.

On Saturday, he said, "If I’m directed to violate a mandate then I will consider all options, including additional legal advice and the possibility of switching instruction to [100%] remote learning, K-12, until I can ensure the safety of all those who have to report to our schools on Monday." He urged parents to ask their children to wear masks to school no matter what the board decides.

Barshay said he, Giachetti and at least three other board members would meet Sunday with attorneys for the district to discuss the legal issues surrounding potentially defying the state guidance and would potentially vote on the matter.

Barshay said the letter to Cuomo and Zucker followed "a tremendous outpouring from the community" and teachers that masks should not be required all day. But O'Hara said some parents also are "imploring us to keep the masks in place." He said: "What we need right now for the last two weeks of school, for the health and safety of all of our students, faculty and staff, is cooperation, not controversy."

Giachetti, who said Tuesday’s meeting will be a union general membership session, acknowledged that some teachers with medical conditions have expressed concern about kids not wearing masks, but "if those teachers don’t feel comfortable with the kids not wearing the masks, they’ll tell the kids to put the masks on."

Barshay said compliance would not be a problem. "If the teacher asks them to wear the mask, they’re going to wear the mask," he said. "If the teacher tells them they’re allowed to take it off, they’ll do what their parents told them to do, whatever that is."

Barshay said even outside those situations, masks would still be required if social distancing is not possible. In most classrooms, though, there are at least 5 feet between desks.

The state’s mask rules have been mired in confusion for more than a week. First, Zucker on June 4 wrote to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to say that the state would drop its school mask mandate and allow schools to decide whether to require masks, unless the CDC objected to the change. The CDC has consistently had guidelines recommending mask-wearing.

Then, on Monday, Cuomo said CDC officials told the state they were not comfortable with lifting the mask requirement for inside school buildings, but did not object to allowing students and staff to go without masks outdoors. The governor then modified state rules to require masks only indoors, but to allow schools to not mandate them outdoors.

With Deborah S. Morris

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