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Local control: State says districts can decide masking, social distancing policies

Students at Dutch Broadway Elementary School in Elmont

Students at Dutch Broadway Elementary School in Elmont in class with a teacher on Nov. 18. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Districts must develop and approve their own reopening plans, the state said Thursday, surprising local educators who had been awaiting guidance for the school year on issues such as masking, COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said that with the state disaster emergency over, "School districts are reestablished as the controlling entity for schools. Schools and school districts should develop plans to open in-person in the fall as safely as possible, and I recommend following guidance from the CDC and local health departments."

The announcement led to criticism from some, including state Commissioner of Education Betty A. Rosa, who asked Zucker to reconsider, noting the health department has "statutory responsibilities as the state agency devoted to protecting the public health.

"There is an urgent need for timely advice and supervision flowing from the state Department of Health to local and school officials as they navigate these uncertain times," she said in a statement.

The majority of Long Island schools open in less than a month, and some districts already have decided to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The CDC last month — citing new information about the infectious power of the delta variant to spread among vaccinated people — recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff and students, regardless of their vaccination status.

Jericho’s school board this week approved requiring indoor masking when teachers and staff report Aug. 25 and students Aug. 26. The Roosevelt school district also has said masks will be required indoors, starting Sept. 2.

Robert Dillon, superintendent of Nassau BOCES, said his educators have been planning for a full return to the classroom with students and staff masked indoors. Staff have been encouraged to get vaccinated, but it is not a requirement, he said Thursday. They also will be socially distanced, when possible.

"We want everyone back in school as soon as possible and as safely as possible," he said.

Perry Fuchs, a science teacher at Plainedge High School and president of the Plainedge Federation of Teachers, called the state health department’s "punting" of decisions to schools "very irresponsible."

"I’m not a doctor," he said. "The superintendent is not a doctor. Lots of parents aren’t doctors. Shouldn’t we have the medical experts tell us what is best?"

Fuchs said he will wear a mask when schools reopen, because he has a high-risk family member. Other teachers he’s talked to also are planning to wear a mask, but some have told him they’re looking forward to not wearing masks.

Roger Tilles, Long Island’s representative on the state Board of Regents, also said the state should issue guidance.

"Our school superintendents have been waiting and waiting and talking about what kind of guidance are we going to get from the state," Tilles said. "I don’t think they want to be subjected to the whims of who happens to be the loudest in their community. It is a health issue."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

Phyllis Harrington, president of the state Council of School Superintendents, said in a statement that districts had expected guidance from the state since June.

"Local school boards and superintendents throughout the state will do what they always do: make decisions in the best interest of children and staff," said Harrington, superintendent of the Oceanside school district. "However, given that this is a health issue, we continue to invite clear direction from county departments of health."

Levittown Superintendent Tonie McDonald, president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents, and West Babylon Superintendent Yiendhy Farrelly, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, in a joint statement, said: "We will continue to make decisions that are in the best interest of our students and staff."

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said in a news conference Thursday that schools should decide for themselves the steps to take.

"I really do believe just as with businesses, I believe the school officials are best equipped to make these decisions for their communities, for their school communities, and I trust them to make good decisions," she said.

The Suffolk County Health Department, in a statement, said: "As the department has done since the onset of the pandemic, we will coordinate directly with our local school districts regarding any recommendations or guidance."

Parent Heather Birong, who has three children in the Carle Place district, was thrilled with Zucker's announcement.

"Our superintendent and Board of Education knows how a lot of us feel, so I’m hoping that they go along with this," she said. "If you want to mask your child — feel free. I am not telling anyone else what to do. I just don’t want my children to wear masks in school."

Nakia Wolfe, president of the Amityville Teachers Association and a fifth-grade math support teacher, said the decision not to offer guidance "allows districts to get a head start on their reopening plan" rather than continue to wait for state recommendations. He said schools should consider CDC guidelines when developing plans.

Some local school districts — such as Commack and Middle Country — recently wrote the state asking for local control over issues such as indoor masking.

A letter from Commack school leaders, dated July 22 and posted on the district's website, asked Cuomo to allow optional mask wearing in schools. "We believe it is time to restore local control to school boards, superintendents and parents," the letter read.

What to know

School districts must develop their own COVID-19 reopening plans, and the state will not provide guidance, state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said Tuesday.

The decision surprised school district officials and teachers, who had been waiting for state guidance on masks, vaccinations and COVID-19 testing.

The leaders of the two Long Island school superintendents’ groups said they would reach out to local health departments for guidance, but Nassau Executive Laura Curran said decisions should be made by schools.

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