The debate on Long Island over mask mandates in schools has...

The debate on Long Island over mask mandates in schools has only grown in intensity since a September rally in Smithtown against the law.   Credit: John Roca

School mask mandates are among Long Island's most polarizing issues, driving a wedge between parents demanding freedom for their children and others insistent that face coverings are essential to protecting the public.

Proponents of masked students won the latest round Tuesday in the ongoing pandemic-era fight when a state appellate judge in Brooklyn temporarily reinstated Gov. Kathy Hochul's mask mandate for indoor public buildings, including schools. Less than 24 hours before, a Nassau County Supreme Court judge ruled that the mandate, which had been in place since August to slow the spread of COVID-19, was unconstitutional.

But the temporary stay signals that the issue at the heart of the disagreement — a parent's right to decide what's best for their child when it brushes up against what health officials insist is safest for the public — remains unsettled.

During the past 12 to 18 months, according to health experts, anti-masking in schools has moved from a fringe issue on Long Island, largely driven by social media, to a more mainstream position. Up to a third of students arrived without masks at some area schools Tuesday, an indication of the growing divide, public policy experts said.

"What we are seeing is that public health has now kind of shifted from being about the protection of the public overall to how individual people are interpreting their level of risk and making decisions for themselves," said Martine Hackett, director of public health programs at Hofstra University. "Which of course goes against what the purpose of public health is."

Reaction to Nassau Supreme Court Justice Thomas Rademaker's Monday night ruling, in which he wrote that the mask mandate violated New York State's Constitution, was as predictable as it was chaotic.

Mandate opponents celebrated the decision — many posting photos and videos on social media of their maskless children walking into school. Proponents expressed concern about their childrens' health and another coronavirus resurgence, even as case numbers continue to decline.

After Rademaker's ruling, dozens of school districts informed parents that masking would be voluntary while many others kept the mandate in place, sparking protests from some parents and students.

Medical experts have said that masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has killed thousands on Long Island and about 850,000 nationwide.

But while 87% of the state's population has received at least one dose of the vaccine — helping slow deaths and hospitalizations — the omicron variant continues to spread, creating the impression among many beleaguered Long Islanders that no preventive measures will fully eradicate the virus.

Resistance to mask mandates shifted recently from roadside rallies and shouting matches at school board meetings to the ballot box, where voters in November elected a slate of anti-mandate Republicans. They included Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, who has led the charge locally against the mandates.

"What we are seeing is the collateral damage of what’s been done," Blakeman said Tuesday, before Appellate Judge Robert J. Miller ordered the mask mandate reinstated. "Kids are not having a normal childhood. There’s anxiety. There’s emotional distress."

Kerry Wachter, president of the Massapequa school board, which made masking voluntary Tuesday, said "it’s time to get back to educating our kids, concentrating on education and doing the best we can in our schools."

The split on mandates breaks largely along political lines, mirroring previous culture war battles, said Craig Burnett, a political science professor at Hofstra.

Mask mandate backers, often Democrats, support greater government intervention, contending that individualized freedoms cannot infringe on the health of the public as a whole, similar to arguments made decades earlier about secondhand smoke, Burnett said.

Conservative mandate opponents generally resist government action and charge that individual rights eclipse the public good — an issue Burnett compares to the gun rights debate.

"This has been building up for some time because this is the issue that gets people excited," he said. "This is just where the battle is happening now."

Masking has become a symbol for both parties' most hard-core supporters, said Stony Brook University political science professor John Barry Ryan.

"And so there will be some Democrats who will insist on masking even when cases are quite low and there will be some Republicans who will refuse masking even when cases are surging," Ryan said. "The vast majority of people, in our data at least, respond to the actual conditions on the ground. But the loudest members of both parties want to win these symbolic fights."

With Lisa L. Colangelo

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