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New York State: Masks will be 'strongly encouraged but not required' in schools

High school students walk between classes on April

High school students walk between classes on April 22 wearing their masks or face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Credit: AP/Mark Lennihan

This story was reported by Matthew Chayes, Bart Jones, David Olson, David Reich-Hale, Craig Schneider, Joie Tyrrell and Beth Whitehouse. It was written by Jones.

UPDATE: School mask requirement remains in place for now, Education Department says

New York State on Friday tentatively lifted an order that required wearing masks in schools, as officials waded into a hotly contested issue regarding COVID-19 safeguards.

The new mandate goes into effect Monday, barring objections from federal health officials, and also applies to camps, along with teachers and counselors. The decision drew immediate praise and criticism.

"As a minimum statewide guidance," school districts do not have to make vaccinated or even unvaccinated students, teachers, counselors or other staff wear face masks while indoors, though it is "strongly encouraged" for those who have not completed their vaccinations for COVID-19, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said in a letter to the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office said state officials want to give the CDC an opportunity to show whether dropping the mandate would have adverse health effects, since the state decision would contradict the federal agency's current guidance.

If the CDC does not object, the state will go ahead with the new mandate, Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said.

"Indoors, mask use will be strongly encouraged but not required for students, campers, and staff/teachers/counselors who are not fully vaccinated," Zucker wrote to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC's director.

The change applies to camps as the summer season is about to kick into gear.

Zucker added that "both indoors and outdoors, students, campers, and staff who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks. Schools and camps may choose to implement stricter standards."

Zucker said in his letter that "outdoors, masks are not required; students, campers, and staff/teachers/counselors who are not fully vaccinated are 'encouraged' to wear a mask in certain higher-risk circumstances."

The state’s shift was announced after Walensky said in a statement Friday morning that "until they are fully vaccinated, adolescents should continue to wear masks and take precautions when around [others] who are not vaccinated."

Walensky said she was "deeply concerned" by a CDC study released Friday that showed an increase in hospitalization rates for adolescents in March and April, compared with earlier in the year.

New York State's mask mandate had ended in April across a range of categories but remained in place at schools, on public transportation, hospitals, nursing homes and correctional facilities.

New York State United Teachers president Andy Pallotta said the Friday afternoon announcement, ahead of a Monday school day, "is whiplash-inducing news."

He urged school districts to "closely evaluate local conditions and connect with their educators and parents to decide the best course of action for protecting their school community."

But Mark Transport, immediate past president of the Long Island Camps and Private Schools Association and owner-director of Crestwood Country Day Camp in Melville, said, "That’s a big change in philosophy, which I think is a great step toward the return to normalcy in society. It’s a banner day for schools."

The decision on what's best to do can be complicated, said one health expert.

Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Medicine, said mask-wearing recommendations for kids are "a moving target."

"Now that kids 12 and up can be vaccinated, it's important to recognize that these are going to be mixed groups," she said. "Some kids are vaccinated, and then there's those who can't be. There's no reason to mask-shame anyone. There are reasons why some parents have made a family decision to have their children wear a mask."

The changes are likely to impact schools and camps in the region next week.

Students in the Commack school district likely will be able to go without masks on Monday, Commack Superintendent Donald James said. He plans to review the new guidance and make a video announcement to parents over the weekend. Parents can continue to send their children to school with masks if they choose, he said.

"I’m certainly relieved that we can now put children in a position where they can learn best," James said.

"I think it will help children understand that schools are safe or safer than outside of schools," he said, noting that students have asked why are they unmasked at the grocery store or outside but masked at school.

Masks a source of contention

Just this week, more than 100 people rallied in Hauppauge against the mask mandate. They pleaded for officials to allow their children to go mask-free in school as the weather is heating up and COVID-19 infection rates are declining to record lows.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), a Republican candidate for governor who helped organize that rally, said masks have contributed to the developmental, emotional and physical harm of students during the pandemic.

New York Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt, who had also called on Cuomo, a Democrat, "to loosen the mask restrictions" in schools ahead of warm weather, said in a statement Friday that the matter "should have been in the hands of the local school districts long ago," and said the change is "welcome news for students, staff and concerned parents."

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, hailed the policy change as well.

"Today’s lifting of the mask mandate in schools will finally put the decision in the hands of the educators and parents who know their children and particular circumstances best," she said. "I’ve been pushing for this change, and I am excited that our protocols are moving to match the tremendous progress we have made."

In schools, wait-and-see attitude

Cordelia Anthony, a Farmingdale High School teacher, said she will continue to wear her mask in school when close to students. Even though she is fully vaccinated, she worries about being an asymptomatic carrier of the virus.

Anthony said if she were to accidentally pass the virus to a student, she "couldn’t live with that guilt."

But she said when standing in front of a class, at a 6-foot distance, she might take off the mask.

"We’re going to have to see the consequences with no masks, no barriers, and another three weeks of school," said Anthony, who is also president of the Farmingdale Federation of Teachers. "I think we’ll have to wait and see."

Freeport Superintendent Kishore Kuncham said, "As long as the decisions are based on science and data, and not political reasons, we would really welcome returning to normalcy in a safe way."

He added, "We will look into this with optimism and caution."

The announcement came as COVID-19 indicators remained at record lows. The state's daily level for positive results from 187,686 tests completed Thursday was 0.42%, while the seven-day average was 0.56%.

The seven-day average was 0.51% on Long Island and 0.45% in New York City.

The number of new confirmed cases was 43 in Nassau County, 38 in Suffolk County, and 350 in New York City.

Across New York, 15 people died of COVID-19-related causes on Thursday, including one each in Nassau and Suffolk.

De Blasio: 'Squeezing COVID out of the city'

New York City's positivity rate, averaged over seven days, was recorded at 0.78%, the lowest test results since the pandemic began, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday morning.

The city calculates its levels differently than the state.

The level of new cases has continued to decline, de Blasio said during his weekly interview on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show.

"We are consistently squeezing COVID out of the city," de Blasio said.

A pilot program to vaccinate middle schoolers at their school buildings debuted Friday at four Bronx schools. It will expand in the coming days and weeks to schools in the other boroughs.

De Blasio said the extent to which the program, targeting ages 12 to 17, expands beyond the pilot depends on how many students — with their parents’ or guardians’ permission — opt for the in-school vaccination.

The program is part of New York's campaign to get more people vaccinated amid declining numbers of inoculations, with the goal of wiping out the deadly virus.

On Thursday, officials announced that young adults in New York City will be able to get a free shot of alcohol outside some bars if they get a COVID-19 vaccination there, while horse racing fans will get a free ticket to next year's Belmont Stakes if they get inoculated in the run-up to this year's Triple Crown event.

Mobile vaccine buses are being parked outside New York City bars and clubs — with an offer of "a shot for a shot" — to encourage those 25 and younger to get inoculated, de Blasio said.

Cuomo said the state will open a new mobile pop-up vaccination site at Belmont Park in Elmont to coincide with the 2021 Belmont Stakes Racing Festival on Saturday.

Fans who get vaccinated at the site will receive free general admission to the 2022 Belmont Stakes, he said in a statement.

The site was to operate adjacent to the Clubhouse Entrance of Belmont Park on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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