This story was reported by Lisa L. Colangelo, Bart Jones, Jean-Paul Salamanca, Joie Tyrrell and Dandan Zou. It was written by Jones.

Thousands of Long Island children went to school without masks Wednesday, but others were still wearing them as the hotly contested state mandate for face coverings came to an end after two years of pandemic restrictions and disruptions.

Many students arrived with smiles on their faces, which classmates could see — some for the first time since they started prekindergarten. But others, and their parents, were walking to school Wednesday morning with masks on, a sign that concerns about COVID-19 persist.

At Northwest Elementary School in Amityville, some parents and children wore masks, but others, lining up outside or waiting in cars, didn't.

WHAT TO KNOW

Thousands of Long Island children went to school without masks Wednesday, but others were still donning them as the hotly contested state mandate for face coverings came to an end after almost two years.

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Sunday that she was dropping the mandate, effective Wednesday, as COVID-19 levels had dropped sharply. The masking issue has been a divisive, political flashpoint for months.

Some children and parents were relieved that students could go mask-free, while others expressed hesitancy. School administrators advised kids to be respectful of others' decisions.

One father who didn't want to be named said he was thrilled masks were no longer required. He said he had kept his son home, learning remotely, so he wouldn’t have to wear a mask in school.

Some school leaders, parents and medical experts contended Gov. Kathy Hochul should have waited before lifting the mandate.

Cristina Arroyo, of Valley Stream, said she sent both of her children to school wearing masks.

"We had a talk about this," said Arroyo, whose kids attend South High School and Robert W. Carbonaro Elementary School. "We decided they will keep on masks for the time being and see how things go."

Arroyo said she's concerned about a possible spike in COVID-19 cases after the winter break, which was last week.

"I do realize cases have been going down, but for the last two years there has been a spike after school vacations," she said. "We haven’t gotten COVID … so it’s not worth it, and the kids didn’t complain at all."

Dan Frankenberry, 18, a senior at Garden City High School, was so excited about masks becoming optional that he and some friends started a countdown Tuesday.

"We were counting down the periods. It's like: ‘All right, five down, four to go!’" he recalled. "It's almost like utter disbelief [that] it's actually happening."

Frankenberry estimated that most students at the high school didn't wear a mask Wednesday.

"Almost nobody had it on," he said. " … The [masks] were uncomfortable and made socializing harder. Now that's done."

Michelle Eslinger walks with her daughter Kennedy, 9, and Ann...

Michelle Eslinger walks with her daughter Kennedy, 9, and Ann Kaletcher with her daughter Abby, 9, to McKenna Elementary School in Massapequa, as mask mandates were lifted on Wednesday. Credit: James Carbone

Myles Rambeau, a seventh-grader at Weldon E. Howitt Middle School in Farmingdale, said he was excited he didn’t have to wear a mask to school, especially because he finds it a little hard to breathe when wearing one. He estimated 60% of the students decided to wear them on Wednesday.

"I like how it’s freedom for each person," said Rambeau, 13, who lives in Farmingdale. "Most of my friends weren’t wearing masks. It’s nice I get to see their real faces."

Troy Rambeau, Myles’ father, said they will still keep masks on hand and be careful around vulnerable family members.

Loraine Kilfeather of Massapequa, who waited at the school to pick up her sixth-grade son Sean, welcomed the change.

"I’m very happy it’s over with," she said of the mask requirement. "I feel so much better. If other people want to continue to wear it, they should, that’s their right. I just love that it’s not mandated."

At Valley Stream Central High School, Mahek Ghotra, 17, said most of the students in her class wore a mask, as did she.

"For me personally, it will take a little bit more time to adjust getting back to normal because I feel like once we get into a habit of things, it's not really that easy to come out of it," the senior said. "Taking it off would kind of feel weird — almost as if you're forgetting something."

Ghotra said she will continue to wear the mask but plans to reevaluate in the coming weeks.

COVID-19 indicators continued a general decline in the region, with 215 new cases reported Tuesday on Long Island and a seven-day positivity average of 1.75%.

Statewide, 19 people including one each in Nassau and Suffolk died Tuesday of causes linked to the virus, according to state data.

In Port Jefferson, several buses pulled up to Edna Louise Spear Elementary School on Wednesday morning with many maskless children and others with their faces covered.

In Stony Brook, Keqin Wei said she was leaving the mask decision up to her 6-year-old son. He decided to take his mask off after stepping onto the school bus Wednesday morning. He had looked around and saw the other kids maskless, Wei said.

She chalked it up to peer pressure, which was in part why she told her son, a first-grader at W.S. Mount Elementary school, to decide for himself.

"I don’t want him to be the only one who has the mask on while the other kids are running around without a mask," she said. "That’s why I said: ‘You decide. Do whatever you feel comfortable.’ "

The mother of two said she still has mixed feelings about the new policy, especially having just read about a recent study that found the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to be less effective against infection for kids ages 5 to 11 than for older children or adults.

"Of course, we are worried. There’s still so many cases reported every day. We are approaching this 1 million death toll" in the United States, Wei said. "But what else can we do? … We have to learn to stop worrying."

'Compassion and understanding'

Before Wednesday, school officials had advised students to be respectful of those who choose to wear a mask and those who do not.

In Port Washington, Superintendent Michael Hynes said the morning went well.

"I saw our staff and students respect each other’s choice and was pleased to hear no incidents of bullying take place. I saw compassion and understanding. I’m so proud of everyone."

Hochul announced on Sunday that she was dropping the mandate, effective Wednesday, as COVID-19 levels had dropped sharply. They had hit record-breaking highs in January amid the omicron variant surge.

Her decision means that districts and individual schools do not have to require masks, but they can if they want.

Michelle Eslinger walks with her daughter Kennedy, 9, and Ann...

Michelle Eslinger walks with her daughter Kennedy, 9, and Ann Kaletcher with her daughter Abby, 9, to McKenna Elementary School in Massapequa, as mask mandates were lifted on Wednesday. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

Most Long Island districts appeared to be going mask-optional Wednesday, though one, Uniondale, said it was keeping the requirement in place until Monday to make sure there is not an uptick in COVID-19 cases after the winter break.

As children with and without masks exited Aquebogue Elementary School in Riverhead Wednesday afternoon, Jessica Santiago, of Jamesport, picked up her three sons, Sebastian, 5; Xavier, 7; and Julian, 10. She said she sent them to school with masks to protect her mother, who previously was diagnosed with COVID-19.

"We’re being very careful; she takes care of them in the morning. We’re trying to keep her safe, and to keep her safe, we’re trying to be safe. That’s our choice," Santiago said. "But I’m going to let the kids in a few weeks feel it out, see how comfortable they are with it and leave it up to them. But for the next few weeks, we’re going to stay a little more protected."

Her son Julian, a fourth-grader, said the day "was easy, but I felt a little nervous because I was the only one in the whole classroom who was wearing a mask."

Santiago said she was a bit nervous going forward about how her children might be treated for wearing masks.

"I think I’m worried about them being the only ones … ," she said. "So that’s why we’ll talk about that today."

As she talked with other parents near the school playground, Jessica Danowski, of Aquebogue, said she gave her son, who is 9, a mask to have in his pocket in case he needed it.

Before the school day started, "He was a little anxious about making sure it was OK, because earlier in the week, he had his mask down a little around his nose, and he got in trouble," Danowski said. "I told him that if he felt better wearing it, he could wear it, or if he didn’t want to, he didn’t have to."

Aquebogue Elementary School Principal Bryan Miltenberg said having a welcoming and accepting environment at the school will help children cope with the changes.

"Our team really does a great job of giving the kids that support," Miltenberg said. "For all schools, the pandemic has been a whirlwind, but we have a great team that tries to see the positives in everything and all the challenges we’ve come through. And we’ve gotten through it together with the support of our students, staff and the community."

Michelle Eslinger walks with her daughter Kennedy, 9, and Ann...

Michelle Eslinger walks with her daughter Kennedy, 9, and Ann Kaletcher with her daughter Abby, 9, to McKenna Elementary School in Massapequa, as mask mandates were lifted on Wednesday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The return to school without a mask mandate was a milestone moment as the region sought some level of normalcy after the pandemic upended life.

It was two years ago, in March 2020, that then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered schools shut as a mysterious illness seeped into the state. Some thought it would be a couple of weeks until Long Island and New York got back to normal.

Instead, it has taken two years — and not everything is back to normal yet.

After the shutdown, schools developed and launched virtual learning systems. In-person education resumed in September 2020, with those at schools wearing masks and hybrid learning protocols in effect.

That meant some students were in classrooms while others learned remotely from home. Eventually, fulltime, in-person classes resumed, but the masks stayed on.

Divisions over mandate

The mandate divided communities, boards of education and even families. The longer it stayed in place, the more the tensions grew.

Proponents argued it was helping to curb spread of the virus and ward off serious illness and even death. They said the masks were a necessary inconvenience amid one of the worst public health crises in U.S. history. The virus has killed more than 900,000 Americans.

Opponents said it was interfering with the educational process, creating emotional problems for children, and was medically unnecessary. Angry residents packed school board meetings to pressure officials to get rid of the face coverings.

The mandate spawned lawsuits, with one group of parents from Long Island suing the state because they believed Hochul doesn't have the authority to issue such orders.

The parents won the case initially, and for a day in late January many schools said students and staff could go without masks. But the decision was "stayed," or suspended temporarily by the state Appellate Division, and the masks were back on the next day.

The case is continuing, with the state facing a deadline Wednesday to submit papers to the court.

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WHAT TO KNOW

Thousands of Long Island children went to school without masks Wednesday, but others were still donning them as the hotly contested state mandate for face coverings came to an end after almost two years.

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Sunday that she was dropping the mandate, effective Wednesday, as COVID-19 levels had dropped sharply. The masking issue has been a divisive, political flashpoint for months.

Some children and parents were relieved that students could go mask-free, while others expressed hesitancy. School administrators advised kids to be respectful of others’ decisions.

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