Gov. Kathy Hochul said the state is "looking at our options" of what to do about schools on Long Island that are reportedly failing to enforce her mandate for students and staff to wear masks indoors.
The governor was asked about the issue at an unrelated event on transportation after Newsday reported that according to a school psychologist and the head of the local teachers union, most students at Connetquot High School are wearing the masks below the nose or chin — or not at all.
Teachers in many other districts, however, said their schools are enforcing the order.
"We have been focusing on keeping kids in school. And it is very disappointing, and we’re looking at our options," Hochul said on Thursday in response to a question from Newsday about noncompliant school districts. "I’ll just say that. I’m not gonna telegraph here what our plans are. But I take this very seriously, and I believe these school districts have a responsibility to follow what has been set forth.
"It is a well thought-out strategy and policy, and the state education department will be in communication with them," she added.
What to know
- Gov. Kathy Hochul said the state is “looking at our options” of what to do about schools on Long Island that are reportedly failing to enforce her mandate for students and staff to wear masks indoors.
- Her comment followed reports that most students at Connetquot High School are wearing their masks under their noses or chins — or not at all, with few consequences from school officials.
- The state Department of Education later Thursday said it investigated the Connetquot teachers' allegations and found no merit to them, though a school psychologist and union leader called for "more of a thorough investigation."
Dr. Brad Lindell of Connetquot High School called the situation "out of control," while the head of the Connetquot Teachers Association, Tony Felicio, said he has sent numerous letters to school authorities since September complaining about widespread violations of the mask mandate in the district.
On Thursday, the governor did not respond to a follow-up question asking whether she would cut funding to districts with enforcement issues.
Her office later Thursday referred further questions to the state Department of Education, which said in a statement it investigated the Connetquot teachers' allegations and found no merit to them.
"Our expectation is that all schools follow the law. The Department asked the BOCES district superintendent to contact district officials, who denied the charges in the article. We otherwise have no information that the district is not following and is not enforcing DOH masking requirements," the department said.
Felicio said "to take the word of the district is absurd," and that the union has documentation going back months illustrating there is a problem.
"If they really cared about the health and safety of staff and students, they would have someone come down and see for themselves," Felicio said.
Lindell said there should be "more of a thorough investigation than just asking those who are violating the mandate if they are. That is no way to gather data to make a decision. In my mind the state just wants this to go away, and they are circling the wagons."
Connetquot school officials said in statements Wednesday that they are enforcing the mandate.
"Throughout the pandemic, the district has worked to enforce all state mandates within an educational setting," the district said. "We have followed directives from health officials and communicated those guidelines consistently with students, teachers, staff and the community. Our building administrators ensure these protocols are in place on a daily basis in order to support the well-being of our schools."
Lindell this week sent a letter to the Board of Education laying out his complaints, and accused some school board members of ignoring the mandate because of a "political agenda." Felicio said the district is caving in to "anti-mask" parents by refusing to comply with the mandate.
Lindell is now sick with COVID-19, and believes he got infected at the school.
The Connetquot school board, in a statement Wednesday, said: "As the governing body of a school district, the Board’s role is to uphold the policies put in place by state and local officials. In that capacity, we have adopted and mandated all Covid health and safety measures within our schools."
Daily Positivity Rate
7-day Positivity Rate
Source: New York State Department of Health
Hochul has previously said that the state Department of Education could withhold funds from school districts if they ignore the mask mandate. She made that statement earlier this month after newly installed Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman issued an order saying local school districts do not have to comply with the mandate.
At the news briefing on Thursday, Hochul said, "We have been very strong in our statement that we understand the frustration. But the reality is, these masks are keeping people safe and alive, and that’s why we can have our children in school, and other parts of our country the children are being isolated back home again."
Union leaders: Enforcement strong in other districts
Teachers and union leaders in other districts said Thursday the mandate is being enforced in their schools.
Nakia Wolfe, head of the Amityville teachers union, said there are daily reminders to staff and students on the importance of wearing masks. He said the district remains vigilant about the mandate.
"We reinforce it every day. It’s something we take very seriously," Wolfe said.
He said reminders follow the daily announcements and Pledge of Allegiance telling students to make sure masks cover mouths and noses.
Cordelia Anthony, a science teacher and head of the Farmingdale teachers union, said the district is taking the mandate seriously.
"It is definitely being enforced here in Farmingdale," Anthony said.
She said the board of education sent out a letter to staff and the community this week saying the district will continue to enforce the requirement.
"Principals made announcements earlier this month to remind students that the policy is in effect," she said.
She said administrators were concerned there could be some backsliding due to the holiday break and the Blakeman order. So they’ve made extra announcements to remind everyone.
Brandy Scott, president of the Long Island Black Educators Association, said she gets the sense that, in general, Long Island school districts are obeying the mask mandate.
"I think educators are strongly, strongly, strongly encouraging parents and students to abide by the guidelines," Scott said. "They are providing information on a constant basis."
She added: "They want to stay open, and masks are the key to doing that."
Scott said even districts where a significant segment of people opposed the mask mandate, such as Smithtown, are obeying it.
Across the state, 185 people died on Wednesday of causes linked to the virus, including 24 fatalities in Suffolk and 11 in Nassau.
The seven-day average for positivity in testing fell to 15.51% on Long Island. The statewide average dropped to 13.3%.
The number of new daily cases was 2,056 in Suffolk, 1,847 in Nassau, and 30,631 statewide.
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