Elementary school students wear masks in September 2020 upon their...

Elementary school students wear masks in September 2020 upon their return to Stewart School in Garden City. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The school mask debate is heating up again, and it's full of confusion, contradictions and even anger.

Suffolk County recommends that students wear masks when school resumes, while Nassau County will leave the decision to each district.

Long Island school leaders are wading through the advice from officials and the opinions of parents to figure out what to do as the delta variant spreads. One superintendent says he's consulting the school district's attorneys.

Meanwhile, some doctors say they are angry that New York State has abandoned its role in telling school districts what to do on a critical health issue, and that educators with no background in science or public health have no place making such decisions.

Suffolk County released a statement late Monday saying the county recommends schools follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which says students should wear masks when school resumes in the next few weeks.

"Mask guidance remains unchanged from the end of the prior school year in June 2021 consistent with CDC recommendations," the county said in a statement from Health Commissioner Dr. Gregson H. Pigott and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

"Per existing CDC guidance, all students, staff, and visitors must wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. Mask wearing is not required outdoors."

But, in Nassau County, officials are not advising schools on the mask issue.

In a statement issued Friday, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said: "While the State Department of Health seems to have abandoned their responsibility to provide COVID-19 guidance to our school districts, I have been in contact with school administrators and parents to help address any confusion.

"I firmly believe that the decision for masks and other public health protocols in our schools and facilities is best left in the hands of the individual school districts who know their students, faculty, parents and community best."

Medical experts say they are upset that politicians and school officials are deciding a children's health issue.

Dr. Eve Meltzer Krief, a pediatrician in Huntington who is also a local representative of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said this week that "school district superintendents have no place in making the public health decisions that affect the health and well-being of the children. Those decisions should be made by public health experts and pediatricians."

She added: "We demand that the school districts mask the children," a position taken nationwide by the academy.

Asked about criticism of school officials making decisions on public health issues, Curran's office noted that her statement said: "The Nassau County Department of Health is available to help districts with any questions regarding safety protocols, as they have been during the entirety of the pandemic."

In Freeport, the district required masks through the last academic year and this year's summer school, and will continue to do so in September, Superintendent Kishore Kuncham said.

"I think it’s honestly common sense," he said. "We have to be fighting COVID-19, but not fighting against the masks."

Last week, New York Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker announced, with the state disaster emergency over, "school districts are reestablished as the controlling entity for schools. Schools and school districts should develop plans to open in-person in the fall as safely as possible, and I recommend following guidance from the CDC and local health departments."

State Commissioner of Education Betty A. Rosa asked Zucker to reconsider, noting the health department has "statutory responsibilities" to protect the public health.

Islip School District Superintendent Dennis O’Hara said Tuesday he’s seeking advice from the school district’s physician and attorneys. He’s also disseminating guidance from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as articles about the virus to the district’s COVID-19 task force.

"The guidance from Suffolk County is not surprising to me," he said. "Like the other things I’ve listed, it will factor into our decisions and recommendations."

O’Hara said the district was likely to finalize a plan in the next two weeks, in time for the Aug. 24 school board meeting.

He said he’s consulting with school attorneys to understand the legal restrictions on mask mandates.

Some districts, including Jericho and Roosevelt, already have announced mask requirements for students and staff.

Others, including Commack and Middle Country, have suggested they would make masks optional.

Sign up to get COVID-19 text alerts at newsday.com/text.

Latest videos