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Hauppauge school district challenging state's indoor mask mandate

Hauppauge High School on Lincoln Blvd in Hauppauge

Hauppauge High School on Lincoln Blvd in Hauppauge on Jan. 20, 2021. Credit: James Carbone

Officials in the Hauppauge school district are facing off with the Cuomo administration over state-mandated masks in school.

The president of the school board and the teachers union sent a letter to state officials on Thursday that said the decision on requiring mask-wearing should be made by each school district and that "the unique circumstances in Hauppauge allows us to eliminate the indoor, across-the-board mask mandate while still ensuring the safety of our students and staff."

The letter said that, starting Monday, masks would no longer be required in all situations for students and staff.

District Superintendent Dennis O’Hara said he was not consulted on the letter, and said its message puts the district in a difficult position after months of keeping everyone safe.

"Masks should be worn to protect everybody in the school community," O'Hara said. "We have people who have underlying medical conditions who can’t get the vaccine, still have to come to work, but could be susceptible to what has been proven to be a deadly virus."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday announced that students, teachers and staff would no longer be required to wear masks when outdoors on school grounds, but he said the state would continue to require them indoors.

The state’s health commissioner, Howard Zucker, had written last week to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying the state was prepared to drop the mask mandate indoors as well as soon as this past Monday.

The resulting confusion among school officials and teachers who had the weekend to prepare for the potential change led the state to clarify its position with the federal agency. Cuomo said CDC officials "were not comfortable with the inside mask requirement" being dropped.

At least three Long Island districts had moved to allow students to go without masks indoors and reversed themselves late Monday, after the state changed course.

The letter sent by Hauppauge school board president David Barshay and teachers union president Kevin Giachetti said, "The district assumes the state will amend its guidance to allow local jurisdiction on mask-wearing, therefore beginning June 14, the district would no longer require masks to be worn by students and staff where other methods for safe social distancing are possible."

The letter, which included data about student infection and staff vaccination rates, made it to social media. Barshay said he does not know how the letter became public and acknowledged he did not loop O’Hara in on the letter, but stands by its message.

"We’re not looking to change the law for the entire state, but we’re looking for the individual districts to be able to make a determination based upon what they know about their community and what’s important for their community," he said.

Barshay said he hopes someone from the governor’s office reaches out over the weekend to have a dialogue with the district. But if that doesn’t happen, the community will have to make a difficult decision on Sunday, and a meeting will be held on whether or not to disregard the state mandate.

"It’s not an easy question because you have competing concerns here: guidance from the state versus what we believe might be a harmful situation for the kids wearing masks in hot weather," Barshay said.

He added students always should have a mask with them.

"Parents should not send their kids to school without masks because there are going to be times where social distancing is not possible," Barshay said.

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