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Unmasked people seen at 2 school forums in Commack High School auditorium

People line up at the Commack Board of

People line up at the Commack Board of Education meeting on June 10. Credit: Newsday/Howard Simmons

Video of two Commack school district events last week shows multiple people unmasked in the Commack High School auditorium, days after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and guidance on the district’s website said the indoor school mask requirement remained in place.

Video of a June 8 community forum showed adults in the audience and administrators including district Superintendent Donald James unmasked while addressing the audience. Video of awards presentations at a June 10 Board of Education meeting showed district staffers and students not wearing masks when posing for pictures.

District spokeswoman Brenda Lentsch said school administrators were masked for most of both meetings, taking their masks off only when they were presenting awards or speaking at the microphone. The student photos took no more than "a couple of minutes" and everyone who attended the meetings was required to sign a COVID screening form, she said.

At the June 8 forum — an hourslong, contentious discussion of the district's multiracial curriculum — everyone wore masks to enter the building but some audience members removed their masks when they sat down, she said.

District officials did not require them to remask. "We discussed whether or not we should do that and it was decided that the anger level of certain individuals in the audience was so high we didn’t want to further disrupt an already stressful meeting," she said.

Citing safe conditions in schools and facing pressure from anti-mask parents, some Long Island district leaders in recent weeks have asked Cuomo and state health officials to reconsider mask mandates for indoor schooling and large school events. Some have had to walk back announcements that anticipated lifting restrictions.

Last month, Commack officials said students would no longer need to wear masks at their desks or during recess or gym classes, as long as they stayed six feet apart; the Cuomo administration vetoed that decision, school officials said.

Cuomo on June 7 announced guidance on mask use indoors remained in place but districts could set their own outdoor policies. James said on the district website students would be required to wear masks indoors but that outdoor use was voluntary.

In an email, New York State Department of Health spokeswoman Jill Montag referred to department guidance for in-person instruction that requires masks be "worn by all individuals in all classroom and non-classroom settings, including but not limited to hallways, school offices, restrooms, gyms, auditoriums, etc. All visitors must wear masks."

She did not say if that guidance applied to noninstructional events held in schools such as community or district events and did not respond to an email asking for clarification.

May 15 guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says "masks should be worn at all times, by all people in school facilities, with certain exceptions for certain people, or for certain settings or activities, such as while eating or drinking."

Masks should be required in classroom and non-classroom settings including auditoriums, it says, adding "schools should encourage modeling of correct and consistent mask use by school leaders, local leaders, and others respected in the community."

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