The decision to end the school mask mandate comes as...

The decision to end the school mask mandate comes as COVID-19 rates have reached lows in New York. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

Students and teachers can leave their masks at home on Wednesday, as Gov. Kathy Hochul lifted a hotly debated mandate for face coverings.

The governor made the announcement on Sunday, 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.

"I always had that sense, if we stick with the experts and the data, and let that be our guide, and not let criticism and politics intervene in this decision making, we’ll end up in the right place," Hochul told reporters at a COVID-19 briefing. "And that is why I feel very confident that this is the time to lift the mask requirement."

She said that counties and cities can decide whether to lift the requirement in their areas. Individual students and staff members still have the option to wear masks. School districts and private schools can still require face coverings if they want to do so.

Hochul said in reaching the decision she and state officials including Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett carefully weighed a range of metrics, including hospitalizations of people for COVID-19, daily case numbers and the seven-day average for positivity.

What to know

  • Students and teachers can leave their face masks at home on Wednesday, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced, as she dropped a hotly debated school mask mandate.
  • Some parents and school leaders applauded the action as timely or even overdue. Others expressed concerns about "unanswered questions."
  • The governor made the move 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.

Welcome news for some

Both the Suffolk and Nassau county executives welcomed the end of the mandate.

"With case levels and hospitalizations declining sharply, I want to thank Governor Hochul for her actions to lift the school mask mandate," Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said in a statement.

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman called Hochul’s announcement "too little too late," but said people "will rejoice in the fact that come Wednesday, our kids will go back to normal."

The dropping of the mandate applies to children ages 2 and older, including those in child care settings. It was not immediately clear whether masks would still be required on school buses.

Some school leaders and parents praised the governor's decision.

Joshua Crane, head of the Stony Brook School, a private school covering grades 7-12, said students and staff will no longer be required to wear masks when they return from winter break on March 7.

"We applaud the governor’s decision to give schools and families the choice to remove masks," he said. "We believe this is an important step towards embracing the 'urgency of normal' for the social, emotional and mental well-being of our students and another hopeful sign that after two long years, the pandemic is receding."

Matthew Sether, of Huntington, said his two children, in pre-K and first grade, have never been to school without masks on.

"Although it should have already been lifted, this is welcoming news and children can now meet their teachers all over again with smiles and get back to the childhood they have missed out on the last two years," he said.

Another Huntington parent, Angela Ackerly, who has three children in local schools, said: "It was a decision that is long overdue. … Our children need their lives back. We as adults owe this to them."

DAILY POSITIVITY RATE

Nassau: 1.90%

Suffolk: 1.60%

Statewide: 1.71%

7-DAY POSITIVITY RATE

Nassau: 2.0%

Suffolk: 1.90%

Statewide: 1.94%   

Source: New York State Department of Health

Concerns, questions remain

But other parents and school leaders said the change in policy was abrupt and wondered if it would lead to more children having to quarantine if they get exposed to a classmate with COVID-19.

Ryan Wenzel, a Wantagh mother of three, called Hochul's decision "frustrating" and "disheartening." She had hoped Hochul would extend the mask mandate for a few weeks, noting that viruses tend to circulate more in winter.

Her middle son, 6, has asthma, and her youngest son, 3, is too young to be vaccinated and is more susceptible to illness after a serious respiratory infection put him in the ICU in early 2020.

Wenzel said she kept her children home for remote learning last school year and took them out for the month of January 2022 during the omicron peak, taking a leave of absence from teaching in Islip to do so.

"I can't keep my kids out of school anymore. I can't. They've already lost out on too much," Wenzel said.

Ric Stark, president of the Hewlett-Woodmere Faculty Association and a physics teacher at Hewlett High School, said "there’s too many unanswered questions for me to know how I feel."

His main concern: what will happen to unmasked students who are exposed to COVID-19 in the classroom?

That’s especially a worry for younger grades, where the rate of vaccination is much lower.

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.

The New York State United Teachers union applauded the news of the mandate's end.

"We welcome this step toward normalcy," president Andy Pallotta said. "The governor is striking the right balance by empowering local officials to use data to determine if and when the mitigation strategies need to change in their areas."

Hochul said she was waiting until Wednesday to end the mandate so state officials will have 48 hours to "fine tune" the new policy and provide answers to any questions schools and parents may have.

Jericho schools Superintendent Hank Grishman said the district could have used more time to prepare.

"I wish the governor had — as I believed she had stated that she would have — given us more notice," he said.

Hochul’s earlier comments made it sound as if she would make a decision after looking at infection rates following the return from February break, "and give us sufficient time to plan for mask optional," Grishman said.

Grishman said he is awaiting more guidance from the state departments of health and education, and the school board is expected to host a special meeting to consider any relevant business.

He said mask wearing has "not been a major controversial issue" in the school district, and he expects "students and staff members who choose to wear masks (will) be OK and accepted."

"I think there'll be a good percentage of our kids that will continue to wear masks. I would be surprised if it probably doesn't wind up being 50/50," he said.

Freeport Schools Superintendent Kishore Kuncham said he is still evaluating what to do for his district. He said he is waiting on more information from the state health department, including whether guidelines changed for physical distancing, contact tracing and quarantining.

"We certainly have time to carefully evaluate and make the decision thoughtfully in the next 48 hours," Kuncham said.

An expected decision, 'following the data'

Dr. David Battinelli, Northwell Health’s physician-in-chief, said Hochul’s decision was "expected," given the "dramatic" decline in COVID levels. He said the announcement shows Hochul is "following the data."

"So it makes sense that there's no mandate," Battinelli said. "It also makes sense to be able to leave it up to the individual places, since there can always be little, small outbreaks or anything else that could happen in any particular location [that] should be left up to the location."

He added that "as long as the numbers are as low as they are, I don't think you're going to see many of the schools holding fast to a mandate."

Hochul had earlier said she was going to wait for the results of at-home tests that students were expected to hand in as they return from winter break, as well as a second round of tests being sent this week. But the CDC announcement appeared to increase the impetus for Hochul to move ahead faster.

Robert N. Lowry, Jr., deputy director for advocacy research and communication at the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said the organization had urged Hochul to make an announcement before school started again this week to avoid confusion after the CDC changed its guidelines Friday.

Hochul’s action came two months after Long Island and New York State broke records for COVID-19 indicators amid the omicron surge, both in daily case numbers and positivity levels.

The indicators have dropped sharply, falling from a seven-day positivity average of nearly 27% on Long Island in early January to 1.95% in figures from Saturday.

Long Island registered 218 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, compared to more than 14,000 at the height of the omicron surge.

Statewide, 20 people, including one in Nassau and two in Suffolk, died on Saturday of causes linked to the virus.

Sign up to get text alerts about COVID-19 and other topics at newsday.com/text.

Latest videos