Schools await NY ruling after CDC says no masks needed for vaccinated teachers, students
This story was reported by Robert Brodsky, John Hildebrand and Craig Schneider. It was written by Brodsky.
Fully vaccinated teachers and students no longer need to wear masks inside school buildings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Friday, but it's unclear if the state will adopt the new guidelines when classes resume in the fall.
The new guidance recommends unvaccinated individuals, including students under the age of 12 not yet eligible for the vaccine, continue to wear a mask and be tested weekly for the virus, despite a nationwide decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.
The nation's top public health agency also recommended 3 feet of distancing among unvaccinated kids in the classroom, but said its guidance should not prevent classrooms from reopening in the fall.
"These COVID-19 prevention strategies remain critical to protect people, including students, teachers, and staff, who are not fully vaccinated, especially in areas of moderate-to-high community transmission levels," the guidance states.
Local health departments and state officials will be tasked with determining masking guidance for their region, the CDC said.
"We are reviewing the new CDC guidance," said Jill Montag, a spokeswoman for the state Health Department.
Plainedge High School science teacher Perry Fuchs, who heads the district’s teachers union, said he appreciated the new guidelines and hoped it continued in the fall.
"I think it’s going to be a very welcome change," Fuchs said, adding that teachers should still be allowed to wear a mask if they want. "Teachers in general want things to go back to normal as quickly as possible."
What to know
- Fully vaccinated teachers and students no longer need to wear masks inside school buildings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Friday
- The state's mask policy is determined by the New York State Health Department, which is reviewing the new CDC guidance
- Unvaccinated individuals, including students under the age of 12 not yet eligible for the vaccine, should continue to wear masks, the CDC recommends
- No advise about requiring shots for teachers and vaccine-eligible kids was issued by the CDC, nor does it suggest whether proof of vaccination should be required
- Three feet of distancing among unvaccinated kids in the classroom is recommended by the CDC
But Farmingdale High School science teacher Cordelia Anthony, who doubles as president of the district's teachers union, worries parents who opt that their children not take the vaccine could view the guidelines as a mandate, potentially causing controversy.
"They could see it as a punishment if they decide not to get the vaccine," she said.
Tonie McDonald, superintendent of the Levittown School District and president of Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, described the CDC’s guidelines as "interesting," but said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the state Health Department would make the final call on masks.
"It’s really going to come down to what New York State decides," McDonald said. "We’d like to have guidance as soon as possible, so we know how to arrange our classrooms. The sooner we have information on that, the better it will be for schools in Nassau County."
Robert Lowry, deputy director for advocacy, research and communications at the State Council of School Superintendents, agreed and said district leaders wanted to know when they would receive guidance for reopening in September.
"State officials told us they were waiting for the CDC to update its guidance," Lowry said. "Now that the CDC has, we hope that the state will act quickly to update the guidance it applies to schools, and that it will consult with school leaders who will have to work with that guidance."
'Honor system' concerns
Long Island education officials on Friday said the CDC guidance, while a step in the right direction, also could create logistical headaches in trying to determine who was vaccinated and who was not.
The CDC guidance does not advise schools to require shots for teachers and vaccine-eligible kids, nor does it suggest whether districts should require proof of vaccination — as they do for most early childhood immunizations such as the measles.
"We have no way of knowing who is vaccinated," said Richard Haase, an English teacher at Candlewood Middle School in Dix Hills and president of the teachers union for the Half Hollow Hills School District. "A lot in life is trust."
Freeport Superintendent Kishore Kuncham appreciates the flexibility of the new guidelines, but nonetheless has concerns about a vaccination system that relies on the "honor system" in classrooms.
"I really hope that science and common sense prevail, and that it’s not a political decision because so many people want the masks to be done," Kuncham said. "We want COVID to be done."
The CDC guidance comes one day after the state Health Department relaxed its own masking guidelines, making face coverings optional — and at the discretion of individual school districts — for summer school programs, although masks are still required on school buses. A similar policy is in place for summer camps statewide.
Implementation of the summer school masking rules could foreshadow how masks are used in the fall, with 124 separate Long Island school districts potentially employing varying strategies to keep students, teachers and staff safe.
For example, the East Meadow School district sent a letter to parents on Thursday announcing that masks are "voluntary" for summer learning programs, while Port Washington Superintendent Michael Hynes said the district would continue to require face coverings until a decision is made at a board of education meeting Wednesday.
Uniondale interim Superintendent Rhonda Taylor split the difference, telling parents in a letter that masks are no longer mandatory in summer school classrooms but required "in the hallway due to the close proximity and the tendency to socialize."
Nassau tops 80%
Nassau County reached a vaccination milestone on Friday, with 80% of residents 18 and older receiving at least one dose of the vaccine — the highest rate among counties in the state with a population of more than 200,000, according to County Executive Laura Curran. The statewide adult vaccination rate is just over 70%, while just under 65% have completed their vaccine series, the Health Department said.
Nassau's vaccination rate among seniors, Blacks and Hispanics also each exceeds state and national averages, according to Health Department data.
"As more contagious COVID-19 variants like Delta emerge, getting vaccinated remains the single best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from getting sick or dying from COVID," Curran said.
The statewide infection rate continued to inch up Thursday to 0.94% and 0.73% on a seven-day average, according to Health Department data.
Long Island's positivity rate is 0.79% — its highest rate since late May — with 68 Nassau residents and 55 from Suffolk testing positive for the virus. New York had three COVID-19 deaths Thursday, but none on Long Island.
"Every day we advance closer to the end of the tunnel, but it is important to remember we still need to be vigilant against the virus," Cuomo said.