Newly installed Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday mandated masks for students and staff at schools throughout New York State, and also ordered mandatory COVID-19 vaccines for staff, or an option of weekly testing.
Hochul said the moves were necessary to help bring under control the surging delta variant. "None of us want a rerun of last year’s horrors with COVID-19," she said.
"I’m immediately directing the Department of Health to institute universal masking for anyone entering our schools," Hochul said.
While New York has made some progress in the fight against COVID-19, she said, "Too many are yet not vaccinated, putting themselves and their communities at risk."
Hochul said she made the move on vaccinations after months of consulting parents, elected officials, teachers, school boards and school superintendents.
"Priority number one — we get children back to school and protect the environment so they can learn and everyone is safe," she said. "As a result, we need to require vaccinations for all school personnel with an option to test out weekly, at least for now."
Hochul’s moves provoked praise from medical experts, relief from some school officials, and an acknowledgment from at least one public official — Nassau County Executive Laura Curran — who has opposed state mandates on masks in schools.
Others were likely to be infuriated by the move, saying mandates infringe on their personal freedoms. Hochul said the public’s health — and lives — are at stake.
"This is the absolute safest move," said Dr. David Battinelli, vice president and chief medical officer at Northwell Health. "We only have a couple of ways to keep everybody safe — that’s vaccines and masks. There is no other way."
"So you are going to see much more of this," he added.
Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the division of pediatric diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital, also praised Hochul’s move to require masks.
"I think it will help move the state closer to protecting all the children that are in the schools," she said. "I think it is an appropriate move at a time when we have such a high rate of delta, which is so much more contagious than the original COVID strains that we saw."
Hochul indicated she isn't done issuing COVID-19 directives on schools.
"Later this week I will announce a series of school-related policies that will be concise and consistent, giving the school districts what they have been asking for," she said.
Most of Long Island's 124 public school systems reopen for the new academic year during the next two weeks. Students in the Jericho district return earliest, on Thursday.
Curran said Tuesday: "While I believe the decision is best in the hands of school districts and parents, my main priority is keeping our students in the classroom. Nassau County's 56 independent school districts have done an excellent job navigating the pandemic, and it's good news that they'll be getting the guidance they need from NY State to keep our schools open and safe."
Tonie McDonald, Levittown schools superintendent and president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, said: "We are gratified that we have received guidance from the governor’s office. We anxiously await official guidelines from the NYSDOH regarding vaccinations for school personnel and mask protocols for those entering our schools."
Kevin Giachetti, president of the Hauppauge Teachers Association, said a mandate from the governor at least spares educators and union leaders like him from making the decision.
"It does make it simpler for the districts and the unions," Giachetti said. "We're in a situation where your membership split almost down the middle. So no matter what decision you make, it's going to upset half the membership."
Giachetti, who along with school board president David Barshay told state officials in June that the masking decision should be made by local school districts, said Tuesday that the rising infection rates have forced him to rethink.
"We were fighting for local control, local decisions because the numbers were so low," he said. "This is a different scenario."
As a teacher and parent, Giachetti said he still feels conflicted about masking.
"I don't really want my students wearing a mask," he said. "But I also don't want my students or my own kids to have to be quarantined three or four times a month because then they're not getting educated. It's just a wacky scenario we are all back into. There's no good answers."
Dr. Indu Gupta, president of the County Health Officials of New York, said Hochul’s move to implement masking in schools "is unquestionably the right step necessary to protect our communities."
"It’s a clear indication that she understands the imperative of following the science of public health and confronting the misinformation and lack of clarity that at times has exacerbated the impact of the pandemic," Gupta said in a statement.
The mask debate has been passionate. Medical experts said they are key — along with getting everyone vaccinated — to stamping out the virus, especially as the delta variant sends case numbers rising again.
But some parents contend masks infringe on their personal freedoms and don’t want their children wearing them. Signs have popped up on some lawns stating, "Unmask our kids."
Caught in the middle were local school superintendents and school boards, tasked with deciding on a policy for their community. Hochul’s decision takes that issue out of their hands and makes masks mandatory.
With Dandan Zou
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