This story was reported by Robert Brodsky, Matthew Chayes, Lisa L. Colangelo, Bart Jones, Bridget Murphy, Yancey Roy and Dandan Zou. It was written by Jones.

A state mandate to wear masks in schools and other indoor public places is back in effect for now after an appellate division judge Tuesday suspended, or "stayed," a decision by a Nassau County judge that the rule was illegal.

The decision by Appellate Judge Robert J. Miller means Long Island school districts that declared masks optional Tuesday must require face coverings again starting Wednesday.

Miller issued a brief decision temporarily suspending the mandate: "Order and Decision of Supreme Court, Nassau County is stayed."

A hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday at state appellate court in Brooklyn. The stay remains in effect until the appellate division makes a final determination to uphold or overturn the ruling banning the mandate.

Gov. Kathy Hochul hailed the decision "for siding with common sense" and said the masks "are critical tools to prevent the spread of COVID-19, make schools and businesses safe, and save lives."

What to know

  • A state mandate to wear masks in schools is back in effect for now after a state appellate division judge on Tuesday suspended a ruling by a judge in Nassau County that the mandate was illegal.
  • The decision means that school districts on Long Island that on Tuesday declared that masks were optional have to go back to requiring them on Wednesday.
  • The news came at the end of a day of developments that caused confusion and concern for districts and parents.

Miller's order came at the end of a day of head-spinning developments, as the mandate seemed to be off, then back on, and parents and school districts scrambled to make sense of it all — while worrying about the impact on children caught in the middle.

DAILY POSITIVITY RATE

Nassau: 9.8%

Suffolk: 11%

Statewide: 9.64%

7-DAY POSITIVITY RATE

Nassau: 10.7%

Suffolk: 12%

Statewide: 9.69%   

Source: New York State Department of Health

"We know that wearing a mask saves lives," state Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement. "This mandate and today’s decision are critical in helping to stop the spread of this virus and protect individuals young and old."

Michael Demetriou of Bellmore, the lead plaintiff in the case, said "I am certainly not happy about the ruling. I think it was a little quick to judgment."

"We are not in a state of emergency," he said, "so I’m not really sure why there was such an emergency put forward … instead of having an intelligent conversation and really digesting all the current information that’s in front of us."

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman said Tuesday of the appellate ruling, "It is time for the governor to stand down and stop disrespecting the rights of students and parents."

"Mask decisions should be made by families and school boards who have their finger on the pulse of their communities," Blakeman added. "Not Albany politicians. Nassau is normal again, and our county will continue to lead the way as an example for the rest of the state to follow."

New York State had appealed the Monday ruling by State Supreme Court Judge Thomas Rademaker in Nassau County.

In one high school, a third of students showed up without masks on Tuesday, while administrators complained about confusion spurred by the court battle.

At the same time, medical experts have said going maskless remains dangerous and could help spread COVID-19, just as the region begins to come out of the omicron variant surge.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit had said they were overjoyed, as their children could go to school maskless — at least for one day.

James filed the appeal after Rademaker issued his decision Monday, the latest move in the back-and-forth over the mask mandate.

"The level of instability is something I haven't experienced in my entire career," said Dennis O'Hara, superintendent of Islip schools.

On Monday night, some Island school districts told students and families that masks would be optional Tuesday morning as classes resumed after Rademaker's ruling.

But at least two districts, Rockville Centre and the Cold Spring Harbor Central School District, reversed course Tuesday morning under the belief that the state's appeal meant the Nassau judge's ruling was now suspended.

Districts that sent out notices or informed staff that masks were now optional also included Bay Shore, Massapequa, Levittown, Lindenhurst, Connetquot, Sayville, South Huntington, Smithtown, Plainedge, North Merrick, East Meadow, Sachem, West Islip, Farmingdale, Franklin Square, Harborfields, Copiague, Carle Place, Commack, Wantagh, Eastport-South Manor and Bayport-Blue Point.

In Islip schools, where masking was optional Tuesday, the principal at Islip High School estimated that one-third of students there arrived without a mask, O'Hara said.

The timing of the ruling Monday left school administrators with little time to notify parents and implement changes, he said.

"Last night, school districts were scrambling at 8, 9 and 10 o'clock in the evening," O'Hara said. "That's not a good way to communicate. But it wasn't because of the districts’ poor planning. It was because of the timing of announcements."

Some legal experts and school officials had said the appeal meant the ruling would be suspended immediately, but others disagreed.

Speaking before the judge's ruling on Tuesday afternoon, James Sample, a professor at Hofstra Law School and an expert in constitutional law, said the state would have to file a second motion along with the appeal in order to get the ruling suspended.

Other attorneys and school officials were under the impression the appeal meant the ruling was suspended immediately.

The State Department of Education on Monday night sent a statement to boards of education and district superintendents statewide that they must continue to enforce the mask rule. The state health department would appeal the ruling, meaning, according to their interpretation of the law, the Nassau judge's order would be automatically suspended.

Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, a Republican from upstate Niagara County, criticized Miller’s decision and said the legislature, not a state agency like the Department of Health, should make the decision on mask mandates.

"I am disappointed the Appellate Division issued a stay that will keep the unconstitutional mask mandate in place while the appeals process plays out in the courts," Ortt said in a statement.

The governor, speaking during a COVID-19 update in Syracuse on Tuesday, said she is encouraging students to keep wearing masks "because the last thing I want to see is a different trend" of case numbers going up "because people gave up on the masks."

Medical experts say masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has killed thousands of people on Long Island and about 850,000 nationwide.

The rapid-fire series of events Tuesday left some parents disheartened and worried.

Blakeman had previously issued an order saying local school boards did not have to follow the mask mandate. Hochul has said local governments do not have the legal authority to override state laws regarding education, and threatened to withhold state education department funds from districts that do not follow the mandate.

Hochul announced the mandate on Aug. 24. The 90-day emergency mask rule for schools was renewed on Nov. 24 and runs through Feb. 21.

The latest COVID-19 indicators continued to decline, though positivity levels and case numbers were still relatively high. Nassau had 645 new daily cases, while Suffolk had 737. Long Island's seven-day average for positivity dropped to 11.32%.

Across the state, 158 people died on Monday of causes linked to the virus. The fatalities included 13 people in Nassau and 19 in Suffolk.

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