Parents and protesters gathered in Smithtown on Saturday to speak out against mask mandates in schools. Newsday's Steve Langford reports.  Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

More than 50 people rallied in Smithtown Saturday against the state’s recently announced school mask mandate, carrying signs demanding "parent choice" and illustrating that the monthslong battle against masks in schools is far from over.

"No more mandates," Michael Murphy, 38, of St. James, said through a bullhorn at the rally outside the headquarters of Smithtown Central School District. "Unmask our children."

On Aug. 24, the day she was sworn in, Gov. Kathy Hochul said she would mandate masks for students, staff and visitors to all New York K-12 schools. She said the mandate was necessary to help control the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, which has caused a surge in COVID-19-related cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Three days later, the state Health Department put a mandate in place for universal masking inside school buildings.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends school mask mandates, said Friday that COVID-19 hospitalizations among children and adolescents rose by nearly fivefold between late June and mid-August.

Infectious disease experts praised Hochul’s move, saying it will help keep kids safe.

State Education Commissioner Betty A. Rosa has warned that schools that don't abide by the mandate could lose state financial aid, and school board members could be removed.

But Murphy urged the district to file a lawsuit against the state to overturn the requirement. If the district doesn’t, "we will have to file the lawsuit ourselves," he said.

Smithtown school board member Stacy Murphy, who is unrelated to Michael Murphy, said she is talking with other board members about meeting in the next several days to discuss the mask issue and a potential lawsuit.

"I am for parent choice," said Murphy, who said she attended the rally "as a parent" rather than a board member.

Christine Manello, 37, of Smithtown, said she and her husband, Andrew Manello, 38, aren’t sure what they’ll do if the mandate goes into effect when school starts on Thursday.

"We’re highly considering taking our kids out of school" and home-schooling them and then possibly moving outside New York State, she said. "We believe they deserve to breathe freely."

Michelle Colapinto, 39, of Smithtown, said her 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son "love school, but they don’t want to go because of the masks."

"It’s hard to concentrate in class when they’re hot and have something that’s restricting their breathing," Colapinto said as she stood several feet from her father, Town Supervisor Edward R. Wehrheim.

Wehrheim said he supports filing a lawsuit "if that’s what it takes."

The first day of school varies in Long Island's 124 districts; many schools opened this past week and others will open in the coming week. Before the mandate, most of the Island's school systems that had announced reopening plans said they would require masks indoors for students and staff.

Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) said that in addition to parental rights, "the children’s rights need to be respected," and kids like his 6-year-old grandson say they don’t want to wear masks.

"As far as I can see, the science shows they are not at great risk with this virus," he said.

Although kids are less likely to get severely ill from COVID-19 than older adults, at least 425 children nationwide had died of COVID-19-related causes as of Aug. 26, and more than 19,000 had been hospitalized, according to an analysis of state data by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The academy, which represents 67,000 pediatricians, supports school mask mandates.

But James Hall, 39, of Smithtown, who has three kids in Smithtown schools, said "the mental toll [on children] is not being considered."

"You’re a child, you’re in school, you want to be able to see your teachers smile, and your friends," he said. "If you can sit in a restaurant for two hours without a mask on, why can’t you sit at your desk?"

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