LI school districts prepare for 'milestone' of mask mandate's end
Long Island school district leaders were gearing up to stop requiring students and staff to wear masks starting Wednesday, while hoping to get answers on questions such as whether face coverings will remain mandatory on school buses.
They were also seeking clarity from the state on any changes to quarantine and isolation policies.
Some districts sent out messages to families on Monday stating that the masking requirement will end in their communities after Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Sunday that schools no longer have to institute it.
The lifting of the mandate takes effect on Wednesday.
But Hochul left it up to counties, cities, school districts and even individual schools to decide if they want to continue requiring masks.
Suffolk and Nassau counties say they are dropping the mandate.
What to know
- Long Island school districts geared up to stop requiring students and staff to wear masks starting Wednesday, though some questions persisted such as whether face coverings will be mandatory on school buses.
- School leaders also want the state to clarify any changes to quarantine and isolation policies.
- Among districts that said they are making masks optional are Lindenhurst, Cold Spring Harbor, Bayport-Blue Point, Huntington, Farmingdale, Connetquot and Half Hollow Hills.
"I think it’s a long-awaited milestone and I think it certainly will allow for a feeling of normalcy," said Ann Pedersen, superintendent of the Lawrence school district.
"We haven’t seen the faces of children since March 13, 2020, and we haven’t seen their smiles and they have been amazing," she added. "The students have absolutely been amazing and everybody has been doing what they had to."
On Wednesday, "we feel we should have a giant banner that says: ‘We did it!’’ Pedersen said.
But others said they thought Hochul's move was premature.
Hochul lifted the mandate "too soon," said Philip Cicero, a retired superintendent in Lynbrook. "She should have given it at least until the end of this week."
He noted that many students leave during winter vacation for areas where the daily positivity rate is higher than on Long Island, and the vaccination rate is lower.
"Principals should be monitoring daily attendance this week to see whether or not there are students out possibly because of COVID signs and symptoms," Cicero said. "Parents returning from hot spot regions with their children should use those test kits that were sent home with many prior to this February recess."
Questions also remained around issues such as the future of quarantine policies. Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, said there is confusion among schools about what the policies are and what they will be starting Wednesday.
He said Monday that the state needs to provide clarity.
"Everybody in a classroom who is unmasked is exposed if any of them are COVID positive," he said.
DAILY POSITIVITY RATE
7-DAY POSITIVITY RATE
Source: New York State Department of Health
Uncertainty also persists over whether masking will still be required on school buses, with at least one district, Lindenhurst, telling the community it would be and another superintendent, Middle Country's Roberta Gerold, telling Newsday her district awaits further guidance on the issue.
State officials said they were working on providing answers before the mandate is dropped on Wednesday.
Hochul on Sunday said families still have the option to send children to school with a mask. Some school leaders said they expect a significant portion of parents to continue masking their children.
School officials and Hochul herself warned that bullying of students who continue to wear masks will not be tolerated.
Among districts that said they are making masks optional are Lindenhurst, Cold Spring Harbor, Bayport-Blue Point, Huntington, Farmingdale, Connetquot and Half Hollow Hills.
The governor lifted the requirement two days after the CDC declared that under new guidelines Long Island is now a "green zone," where mandatory masking is no longer needed in schools or indoor public places.
Lawrence will make masks optional starting Wednesday, though it is awaiting guidance from the state on what to do concerning quarantines, Pedersen said.
Plainview-Old Bethpage Superintendent Mary O’Meara said the Board of Education was scheduled to vote Monday night on lifting the mandate.
"Overall we are happy. We think it is the right time," she said, noting that Nassau County has a low positivity rate and high vaccination numbers.
As schools move into this new era, officials must consider several difficult questions, she said. For example, if a parent wants a student to wear a mask in school, the district does not want the teacher to be the one to ensure that the student is wearing it.
Also, if a student returns from isolation after testing positive, current statewide guidance says they must wear a mask upon return to the classroom for five days and that is "kind of giving up that they had COVID," O'Meara said.
"In reality, a student may not feel comfortable" letting people know that, she said. "These are some of our concerns and other layers to consider."
Some educators also are worried about dropping the mask mandate in elementary schools, where vaccination rates are low.
About 33% of 5- to 11-year-olds in New York State are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. That number is about 71% for 12- to 17-year-olds. Children under 5 are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
Richard Haase, president of the Half Hollow Hills Teachers’ Association, said he hopes an end to the school mask mandate represents a return to normalcy.
He added that with the COVID-19 numbers improving, "there is a lot of hope that we are moving back to normalcy. There are a lot of people who feel it is the right thing to try and hope for the best. But I know there are still going to be people who are going to be fearful."
He anticipates a notable difference in the classroom.
"Teachers love to see their kids’ smiling faces and we are going to love that — we really are," he said. For the kids, it "is going to feel a little bit more natural. But if someone is immunocompromised or scared of the virus and they are in a building of 2,000 people, it can come with some fear, too. There are some mixed emotions."
Kevin Coyne, president of the Brentwood Teachers Association and a sixth-grade teacher in the district, said "now is the opportune time" to end the mandate.
"We have followed the science and … it is consistent with other states in our tristate area so I feel we are in the right place and I am happy," he said.
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