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School mask requirement remains in place for now, Education Department says

Masks will continue to be required at Plainedge

Masks will continue to be required at Plainedge High School in Massapequa and at schools across Long Island and the rest of the state through at least Monday. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Long Island students will have to wear masks to school on Monday because the state has not formally changed its school mask mandate, despite an announcement Friday that it planned to lift the requirement at the start of the week.

The New York State Education Department told school districts Sunday in a guidance update that state health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker's letter to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was to obtain a response from the federal agency on lifting the school mask mandate, "but it has not changed any existing arrangements."

"Therefore, schools should continue to operate under their existing procedures until further notice," the Education Department wrote to districts. "No changes have been, or will be, made by the Executive until after Monday June 7 to afford the CDC an opportunity to respond to the letter."

State officials said Friday they planned to lift the mask mandate in schools starting Monday, as long as the CDC did not object. The change would go against federal guidance, which recommends masks to be worn in schools.

What to know

  • The statewide mandate requiring masks in schools remains in place for now despite a letter from Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker outlining plans to lift it on Monday.
  • The state is waiting for the CDC to respond to the letter.
  • The state's updated guidance, issued on Sunday, frustrated Long Island school district officials and parents who had been preparing for the requirement to be lifted on Monday in the absence of CDC objections.

The state's announcement "created a colossal mess" for districts, the New York State Council of School Superintendents wrote in a letter Sunday morning.

The state would leave masking decisions up to individual school districts once the masking mandate is lifted, officials said.

The announcement on Friday made it seem that the rules were changing and that schools could choose to lift mask requirements on Monday when that was not the case, the council said.

Commack School District Superintendent Donald James said he was "disappointed" that the mask mandate will remain in place Monday.

"The release of the letter on a Friday afternoon created mass confusion, not only among superintendents and staff but among parents," James said Sunday. "And then here we are on Sunday [afternoon] and we find out the letter doesn’t mean what we thought it meant. And now we are going into a heat wave this week."

The Commack School District has been among the most vocal in criticizing the facial covering rule.

Last month, the district said students would no longer need to wear masks at their desks or during recess or physical education classes, as long as they stayed six feet apart. But that decision was vetoed by the Cuomo administration, school officials said.

The Cuomo administration press office did not respond to comment requests on Sunday. The state Education Department did not comment beyond forwarding a copy of its letter to school districts.

Robert Dillon, superintendent for Nassau BOCES, said Friday's announcement sent Long Island school districts "in all different directions." BOCES, which oversees shared services for 56 school districts, will continue to require masks on grounds because the law has not changed, even as "wants and wishes" have, Dillon said.

"I'm the biggest advocate for getting back to what it was pre-March of 2020," Dillon said Sunday, before the Education Department sent out its renewed guidance. "But I am not in the power to do that."

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said the state needs to clarify the mask rules "immediately."

"The conflicting messages coming from the state regarding masks in schools are causing confusion for school officials and parents," Curran said in a statement. "This decision must be put in the hands of the educators and parents who know their children and particular circumstances best."

The state Education Department said Zucker’s letter sought to address the differences in federal guidance for camps and schools.

Zucker said the state would encourage students, teachers and staff who have not been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to wear masks indoors but would not require them to do so.

Fully vaccinated people would not need to wear masks, but "schools and camps may choose to implement stricter standards."

"If there is any data or science that you are aware of that contradicts moving forward with this approach, please let me know as soon as possible. We plan to make this guidance effective on Monday June 7," the letter said.

Connetquot schools Superintendent Lynda Adams said the update was likely "frustrating" after the "confusion" caused by Friday’s announcement.

The mask easement letter and information "should never have been released without their willingness to move forward with it," Adams wrote in a letter to parents.

Connetquot will encourage staff to take "greater breaks" and students to play separately on the playground this week so they can remove masks outdoors in the warmer weather.

Marika Canale, a mother of four from Lindenhurst, said she believes making kids wear masks in 90 degree heat is "more harmful" than lifting the mandate.

"Everything is reopening. Nobody else has to wear masks, but kids still have to wear masks in school? It doesn’t make any sense," Canale said.

Henry Mo, of Syosset, said he felt more "comfortable" Sunday after learning the mask mandates were still in effect because his 10-year-old daughter is not eligible for a vaccine, and his 14-year-old son is not yet fully vaccinated.

But the announcements were "really confusing," he said, and he questioned if such decisions were made "randomly" with just a couple weeks left before the end of the school year.

"I don't understand. Under this circumstance, you have kids under age 12, they are not eligible for getting any vaccine. Why are they making this decision?" said Mo, 50, an economist for an insurance company.

The Longwood Central School District Board of Education held a special meeting on the mask mandate Sunday night. Officials noted that even if the state allowed the district to lift the mandate, they would need community input to amend their school reopening plan and would need to speak to administrators about how to safely prepare the buildings.

"I know there's a lot of very upset parents out there. I am for giving parents the right to choose, but we do have to follow the mandates," board president Penelope Blizzard-McGrath said.

Before the state Education Department’s letter went out Sunday afternoon, some districts, including Patchogue-Medford and Middle Country Central School district, had already told community members that students would not have to wear masks Monday if the mandate was lifted. A spokesperson for Patchogue-Medford was not immediately available Sunday evening.

Middle Country Central School District notified parents Sunday afternoon that masks will still be required because the changes were not approved.

"The anticipated changes in the mask mandates have not been approved. Until further notice we will continue to follow masking guidelines. All students and staff will continue to wear masks while in the school," Middle Country announced Sunday afternoon.

The news did not change the plan for New York City students, as the city education department said Friday it would keep its universal mask policy.

With Lisa L. Colangelo and Dandan Zou

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