This story was reported by John Asbury, Robert Brodsky, Lisa L. Colangelo, Bart Jones, Yancey Roy and Dandan Zou. It was written by Jones.
Long Island schools faced an uncertain return to required masking on Wednesday, as thousands of students went back to class with their faces covered amid a bruising court battle over whether they must continue to do so during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The next step in the court fight looms on Friday.
A day after an appellate court judge overturned a ruling that temporarily ended a state mandate requiring masks in schools and other indoor public places, students and staff for the most part arrived in schools on Wednesday with the masks back on.
Some students had spent a day — Tuesday — without masks in school and according to some parents it was liberating.
What to know
- Thousands of students on Long Island went back to class Wednesday wearing masks, after some went without them on Tuesday following a court decision that declared a state mandate requiring face coverings to be illegal.
- The next step in the case looms Friday with both sides returning to battle over the mandate.
- Doctors said they are seeing an increase in the number of young, mostly unvaccinated patients with Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome (MIS-C), a rare but serious illness that occurs in some kids who have been infected with COVID-19.
Medical experts said the move to shed the masks was dangerous, especially amid the omicron variant surge that has seen record levels of COVID-19 cases on Long Island and throughout New York State.
They reminded people that the virus is highly contagious and deadly — thousands have died on Long Island and more than 850,000 nationwide. Wearing a mask is a small price to pay to protect lives, they said.
"Masks remain an important component of the layered protection needed to prevent transmission of COVID among children inside schools," Dr. Eve Meltzer Krief, of Huntington Village Pediatrics, told Newsday.
DAILY POSITIVITY RATE
7-DAY POSITIVITY RATE
Source: New York State Department of Health
Doctors at Cohen Children’s Medical Center said Wednesday they are seeing an increase in the number of young, mostly unvaccinated patients with Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome (MIS-C), a rare but serious illness that occurs in some kids who have been infected with COVID-19.
Dr. James Schneider, chief of pediatric care, said doctors have been on alert for MIS-C since the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations among children surged earlier this month.
"I’m definitely seeing an uptick in the number of kids with MIS-C … probably four or five in the ICU over the last week," he said. "Some are quite sick; I actually have one patient who’s one of the sickest I’ve taken care of over the pandemic."
On Wednesday, several hundred people rallied outside the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge to protest the mask mandate. They waved "No More Masks" signs and flags supporting former President Donald Trump and attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.
"This is no longer just a message, it's a movement. This has to stop. There’s no trust in leadership in Albany," Suffolk County Legis. Nick Caracappa (R-Selden) said at the rally.
On Tuesday, Appellate Justice Robert J. Miller in Brooklyn imposed a "stay," or temporary suspension, on a decision Monday by New York State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Rademaker in Nassau County, who ruled that the state school mask mandate is illegal.
That meant the many Long Island school districts that declared masks optional Tuesday had to go back to requiring them again starting Wednesday.
Commack interim Superintendent David Flatley estimated that one-third of his district's students didn’t wear a mask Tuesday. Some came to school Wednesday without a mask but wore it after the school provided them one.
"Today, we are back to the way we were last week," Flatley said Wednesday. "We haven't had any situations where students refused to put on their masks. … The school day has been routine."
Cordelia Anthony, a science teacher and president of the Farmingdale Federation of Teachers, described Wednesday as "relatively calm." Students who came to school without a mask were offered one.
"There were incidents in certain buildings where students were either trying to make a point or had been told by their parents to try to make a point about not putting the mask on," she said. "So there were some small incidents here and there, but nothing that has been reported on any large scale from what I'm hearing."
In his ruling, Rademaker wrote that he is not opining about the effectiveness or legality of mask mandates in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, only that the Department of Health mandate was "promulgated and enacted unlawfully" and that such mandates have to go through the legislature. Should the ruling be upheld, legislative action is possible.
During a Newsday Live virtual conversation on Wednesday, several policy and health experts said confusion has ensued amid the court battle.
"With this flip-flopping of some people can wear a mask, some people cannot wear masks, there’s this big confusion," said Dr. Nicolas Hernandez, a family medicine attending physician at Northwell Health's Plainview Hospital.
Several school districts said they struggled in deciding whether to mandate students to wear a mask on Tuesday.
Michael Hynes, superintendent of the Port Washington Public School District, said his district had students wear them.
"We felt it was in the best interest, at least in Port Washington, to do what we did because we didn’t want flip-flopping back and forth," Hynes said.
"Not saying one’s right or one’s wrong, but I felt like yesterday was purgatory, like in the sense of we weren’t really sure which way to go," he added.
Dennis O’Hara, superintendent of the Islip School District, said Tuesday was a mask optional day after the school board consulted with lawyers. Guidance changes surrounding masking pose a challenge, O’Hara said.
"There’s really no time to get your head around it and do some good planning," said O’Hara.
In the court case, lawyers for the state and opponents must submit written arguments to the state Appellate Division — New York’s midlevel appeals court — by 10 a.m. Friday.
A four-judge panel will review written arguments and issue a decision — but probably not Friday.
The judges will issue a ruling "in an expedited time frame, possibly as early as next week," said Lucian Chalfen, spokesman for the state Office of Court Administration.
The losing side could then appeal to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, to hear the case.
But the Court of Appeals accepts only a fraction of such requests each year. Until the Appellate Division rules on the case, the mask mandate remains in place because of the stay by Miller.
Meanwhile, doctors were warning Wednesday about the MIS-C condition in children.
The condition, first identified at the start of the pandemic in spring 2020, causes different body parts to become inflamed including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can be deadly. Symptoms can appear three to five weeks after a child has been infected with COVID-19.
Schneider said 10 to 12 children were admitted to the hospital with MIS-C in January, many requiring a stay in the intensive care unit. Most of the young patients were not vaccinated against COVID-19.
Schneider said it’s important for parents to keep an eye out for symptoms that include fever that lasts more than a day or two, rashes, red eyes and gastrointestinal issues such as vomiting and diarrhea — and to take kids with the symptoms to a pediatrician immediately for evaluation.
"Vaccines still remain the most important thing that we can do to prevent a COVID infection, which is the best thing we can possibly do to prevent MIS-C," Schneider said.
COVID-19 indicators continued to generally decline in data released Wednesday, though they remain at relatively high levels.
The number of new confirmed cases was 1,153 in Nassau, 1,377 in Suffolk and 16,519 statewide.
The seven-day average for positivity fell to 10.88% on Long Island and 9.11% statewide.
Hospitalizations of patients with COVID-19 dropped by 519 over the last day, to 9,335.
Statewide, 158 people of all ages died on Tuesday of causes linked to COVID-19, according to state data. The fatalities included 12 in Suffolk and eight in Nassau.
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