The Roosevelt school district is set to open for the 2021-22 school term with COVID-19 precautions in place to keep students safe. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The state Department of Health alleviated some tension over the issue of masks in schools when, late Friday, it put in place a mandate for universal masking inside school buildings. Now, time will tell if all of Long Island's 124 school districts follow through.

With barely a week before most schools open, several Long Island districts had yet to set in stone policies on masking, as they awaited formal direction from the state, sought opinions from the community and legal experts, and, in some cases, dealt with angry parents calling for no mask mandates.

Most school systems that announced reopening plans — before the Friday mandate — say they will require masks indoors for students and staff.

Certain districts had announced a policy that masks would be optional, and it remains to be seen whether they abide by the mandate. Those districts include Farmingdale and Massapequa.

Numerous Island school districts have yet to announce any policy on masking, but some Island educators said the state's mandate could lead those districts to embrace the measure.

Massapequa's school board had earlier said masks would be optional. On Saturday, schools Superintendent Lucille Iconis said in an email: "The Board of Education will be meeting to discuss the new directive and has no comment at this time."

The Lindenhurst school district had decided masks would be optional in a school board resolution on Monday. Superintendent Daniel Giordano had said masks would remain optional until the district received a formal order from the state.

On Saturday evening, the superintendent said the district would abide by the mask mandate.

"In accordance with the NYS Department of Health Commissioner’s determination, masks will be required when inside school buildings for all staff, students and visitors, and will be optional when outdoors," Giordano said in a statement.

While masks have become a focus of debate, officials at numerous Long Island schools said they will follow other pandemic safeguards they employed last year: signs directing virus-safe foot traffic, an abundance of hand sanitizer dispensers, and isolation areas in nursing offices.

Many districts plan to follow the guidelines on physical distancing and contact tracing recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Their students, when they sit, will be 3 feet from the nearest student, instead of 6 feet. Many schools will allow access to lockers that had remained off limits.

An air of anxiety as kids return

Long Island educators and parents acknowledge an air of anxiety accompanies the return to brick-and-mortar schools.

With cases of the highly contagious delta variant rising across the Island and country, virtually all children returning to in-person classes, and many younger students not yet eligible for a vaccine, school officials said they will be closely monitoring infection numbers and are prepared to adjust on the fly.

"COVID-19 has made us very agile, so we can quickly review and revise what we're doing," said Mary O'Meara, superintendent of the Plainview-Old Bethpage school district.

O'Meara said the district's plans provide flexibility to reduce the number of students in classes that have outbreaks. Schools can pivot to remote instruction should significant numbers of infections occur, she said.

Melanie Baker, a Brentwood parent with three children in the school system, said she is not worried about her own children, who are vaccinated, but she is concerned for students who are unvaccinated.

"With the delta variant spiking the way it is, our children's safety is most important," Baker said. "We're seeing children in the ICU. Their whole future is ahead of them, and they could be cut down."

Baker said she worries about those districts who have yet to adopt masking requirements. Brentwood plans to mask.

"My heart goes out to those families," she said.

Roosevelt Superintendent Deborah Wortham said she supports newly installed Gov. Kathy Hochul's decision to mandate masks in schools.

"Research and science, and the good Lord, got us to where we are today," Wortham said. "If masks get us back to in-person learning, so be it."

Parents opposed to the measure, asserting that masks largely do not work and restrict children, have joined to protest school masking.

Opponents have sent letters and emails to superintendents, spoken out at school board meetings and held demonstrations. In June, more than 100 parents, activists and lawmakers — chanting "no more masks" and "free our children" — rallied in Hauppauge against the practice in schools.

Parents at a Smithtown school district board meeting in June rebuked school leaders for not doing more to overturn the mask directive. One woman said masking represents "an environment of fear-conditioning and medical tyranny" in schools. Another parent likened enforced mask wearing to child abuse, and a man taunted administrators and board members for wearing "face diapers."

The CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students age 2 and older, staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

Normalcy and continued change

Students, teachers and school officials in the Island's public school districts want a return to normalcy, and in many ways, that’s occurring. Many school sports and clubs will be up and running. With remote instruction on hold, teachers won’t be ping-ponging their attention between kids in their class and remote students who appear in little boxes on teachers’ computers.

Some districts will continue what they started. Roosevelt, for instance, will continue requiring temperature checks of its 3,000 students, despite the CDC no longer recommending temperature screenings at school, officials said.

"We've done so well with the temperature taking," Wortham said in an interview. "It's already set up. We have daily screening forms for students and staff."

Roosevelt will continue to provide desk guards for students under...

Roosevelt will continue to provide desk guards for students under the age of 12. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Many schools did away with plastic barriers on desks by the end of last school year and will not have them in the fall. Revised CDC guidelines removed recommendations for plastic shields or other barriers between desks.

But Roosevelt will continue to provide desk guards for students under age 12, since they are not yet eligible for vaccinations, Wortham said.

Hochul has indicated she would like to require vaccinations for schoolteachers and staff or weekly testing. It's unclear if she has that authority.

The state Department of Health said it is still reviewing mask policies for day care centers.

In Freeport, Superintendent Kishore Kuncham said he never wavered on masking, not even during the summer when the CDC said it could be optional. That CDC guidance has changed.

Freeport has pulled down the desk barriers but will continue daily temperature checks and contact tracing, he said.

In the Jericho school system, which began classes Thursday, contact tracing will continue, but the desk barriers have been put away, Superintendent Henry Grishman said.

"They impacted how well the students could hear the teacher, and how well they could see," he said.

Grishman said he didn't face the kind of pushback on masks seen in some other districts.

"The vast majority of the district understands that masks are, in these particular times, necessary," Grishman said.

COVID guidelines in schools: last year and now

Masks: A year ago, students and staff in Long Island schools wore masks. Now, the state Department of Health has mandated they be worn in schools.

Vaccines: A year ago, there were none. Now, students as young as 12 can be vaccinated, and Gov. Kathy Hochul has indicated she also would require vaccinations for schoolteachers and staff or weekly testing.

Remote learning: A year ago, it was a staple in districts across Long Island. Some students were learning exclusively at home, others were on a hybrid schedule. This year, many districts are not offering that option.

Social distancing: A year ago, CDC guidelines called for 6 feet of social distancing. Now, those in the school building will social distance at 3 feet, in tune with the CDC's revised guidelines.

Plastic barriers: A year ago, they were ubiquitous in schools across LI and elsewhere. Now, many districts have put them away.

Temperature checks: Last year, districts were required to do temperature checks of students and staff. This year, the CDC is no longer recommending them and the practice varies from district to district.

Signs and sanitizers: A year ago, they were everywhere in schools. They'll be back again.

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