Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman issued an order last week saying local...

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman issued an order last week saying local school districts can opt not to obey the state mandate on masks in schools. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association told Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman that he has no legal authority to tell schools not to follow a state mandate requiring masks indoors, while two state-run COVID-19 testing sites are due to open this week on Long Island.

Michael J. Kelly, president of the school boards group, in a letter dated Jan. 6 called on Blakeman to drop his executive order that local school districts vote this month on whether to obey the mandate issued by Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Blakeman issued the order last week, saying local school districts can opt not to obey the state mandate on masks in schools. He argued the county has "home rule authority" of preventing the state from imposing unreasonable restrictions on parents without a compelling reason.

Kelly disagreed.

"New York State Education Law is clear as to who has authority over schools," Kelly wrote, namely local boards of education, the state education commissioner, the New York State Board of Regents, the governor and the State Legislature.

The laws "are designed to prevent regulatory and legislative chaos," Kelly wrote. "Counties have no more authority to direct school board matters than do schools to legislate county affairs."

What to know

The Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association told Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman it is illegal for him to issue an order that schools can refuse to obey the state mandate requiring masks indoors.

Two state-run COVID-19 testing sites open this week on Long Island, at Stony Brook University on Tuesday and at Farmingdale State College on Thursday.

Some data indicated the omicron surge may be peaking, with the positivity average on Long Island dropping for the fourth straight day.

Blakeman, who was sworn in as county executive a week ago, on Monday did not respond directly to Kelly's point. But in a statement, he said: "It’s a shame that the Governor is threatening to withhold money for students, instead of working with parents and school boards to do what is best for them.

"Students have been mandated to wear masks in school for more than a year and a half, yet we are seeing some of the highest infection rates. I believe the state shouldn’t paint every county with a broad brush, and local school boards should make decisions based on the needs of their individual districts."

Medical experts said masks help stop spread of the virus, and that the current surge of the highly contagious omicron variant would be even worse if people did not use masks.

Daily Positivity Rate

Nassau: 22.3%

Suffolk: 24.1%

Statewide: 19.35%

7-day Positivity Rate

Nassau: 24.8%

Suffolk: 26.4%

Statewide: 21.30%

Source: New York State Department of Health

Hochul, a Democrat, on Friday said she is not a "pushover" and will stand up to Blakeman’s effort to undercut state education law. She also warned districts they could lose state funding if they violate the mask mandate.

Ten state Democratic legislators on Friday called on Blakeman, a Republican, to rescind what they called his "irresponsible and clearly unlawful executive order," and said they believe Nassau school districts will ignore it. Some, including Long Beach and Oceanside, have said they will do exactly that.

Testing sites opening on Long Island

Hochul said a state-run testing site will open Thursday at Farmingdale State College as part of an effort to give people more opportunities to get tested for the virus amid the omicron surge.

The site, one of 10 opening this week at SUNY campuses, will operate Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Last week, Hochul announced the opening of similar sites at other SUNY campuses, including Stony Brook University. That site is expected to open Tuesday.

New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health on Monday said it saw a jump in COVID-19 patients at its 19 hospitals, to 1,705, compared to 1,506 a week earlier. Northwell has 11 hospitals on Long Island.

The number of children hospitalized at Northwell with COVID-19 dropped to 40, from 58 the previous week, though there were just two the week of Dec. 10.

Northwell spokesman Jason Molinet said doctors feel confident the system can handle the surge of COVID-19 patients, which is about half the record high of 3,500 the system had in April 2020.

Some medical experts and state officials believe the omicron surge — which has broken case and positivity levels in the state and on Long Island — may be getting close to plateauing, and then hopefully coming down almost as fast as it went up.

Catholic Health, based in Rockville Centre, said Monday it is also able to handle the omicron surge.

"We continue to manage the current surge without sacrificing care, returning close to 12,000 patients to their loved ones," said Dr. Jason M. Golbin, Catholic Health executive vice president and chief medical officer. "Due to our experience with COVID over the past two years, we are able to handle increases in capacity."

He said vaccinations, boosters, masks, social distancing and proper hand-washing remain the best tools to "navigate this latest wave."

Some of the latest figures released by the state on Monday indicated the omicron peak may be arriving. For the fourth straight day, the seven-day average for positivity in testing dropped on Long Island, reaching 25.58%. The statewide average also fell again, for the fourth day in a row, to 21.30%.

But hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 went up by 275, to 12,022. Statewide, 135 people died on Sunday of causes linked to the virus, including 10 each in Nassau and Suffolk.

Nassau logged 3,767 new cases on Sunday, while Suffolk had 3,286. Those were well below the records set by both counties during the past week, though the total number of tests often is lower on Sundays than other days.

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