Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday said children will not be required to wear masks in school when classes resume in the fall, but that could change depending on virus numbers. Credit: NY Governor's Office

Children will return to school this fall without being required to wear a mask, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Wednesday, though a rise in COVID-19 cases could lead to a policy reversal.

Hochul, holding a COVID-19 briefing at her Manhattan office, shared her administration's plans for a potential fall surge of the virus amid the rapid spread of the BA. 5 omicron subvariant.

“We don’t currently, based on today’s numbers, anticipate the need for masks in classrooms, but I am going to reserve the right to return this policy if the numbers change, the circumstances change, and the severity of the illnesses change,” she said.

The governor added: “God forbid that there is a variant that affects kids more severely."

What to know

  • Children will return to school this fall without being required to wear a mask.
  • On Long Island, 34.3% of children between the ages of 5 and 11 had completed their COVID-19 vaccine series as of Friday; That number was 72.1% for the 12-to-17 age group.
  • Long Island school leaders backed the governor’s move while health experts questioned it's wisdom because of rising COVID-19 cases.

On Long Island, 34.3% of children between the ages of 5 and 11 had completed their vaccine series as of Friday; that number was 72.1% for the 12-to-17 age group, according to the state Department of Health. 

Some school district leaders praised the governor's announcement, saying they hope it portends the start of a relatively normal school year. But the unpredictable nature of the virus and an ongoing surge in cases had Long Island health experts urging caution.

Hochul said in preparation for a potential fall surge, the state has stockpiled 3 million at-home test kits for distribution. Other elements of the plan include pushing to raise vaccination and booster rates, and improving access to therapeutics.

Long Island school leaders backed the governor’s move.

Locust Valley school board president Brian Nolan called the mask announcement “great,” but emphasized that the board favors parents making the final decision on face coverings for their children.

“Our school board has always been in favor of parental choice,” Nolan said.

A group of parents from Long Island last winter filed a lawsuit against the state demanding it lift the mask mandate for schools. A State Supreme Court judge in Nassau County ruled in their favor Jan. 24, leading to a one-day lifting of the mandate in schools the following day. The state Appellate Court then issued a "stay," or temporary suspension of the ruling, so the masks were back on until Hochul lifted the mandate in February.

Last September, the Locust Valley and Massapequa school districts filed a lawsuit challenging New York State's school mask mandate, which was imposed by the state health department to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Both districts also initially planned mask-optional policies for the fall semester. They reversed course after the state warned that board members could be ousted and school districts could have state financial aid withheld.

“We want to focus on learning, extracurricular activities, academic excellence and athletics,” Nolan said.

Henry Grishman, superintendent of the Jericho school system, said he was pleased with the announcement, but noted that there’s still a lot of time before the start of school.

“It’s early in the summer. I’m eager to see how infection rates change between now and the start of school,” Grishman said. “The preference would be to open without masks.”

He added that the district’s infection rates had remained low among staff and students, “and masks were a major factor in keeping kids and staff safe.”

Grishman also backed the governor’s announcement to distribute 3 million COVID-19 test kits to school districts. He said the district had open access to home tests during April, May and June, and the kits were regularly sent home.

The district looks forward to state guidance based on information from science and health experts, Grishman said.

“I trust the advice from medical professionals."

Randy Stith, president of the Hempstead school board, also supported the governor's approach.

“We know she is following the science from the CDC and state health department," Stith said. "Of course we’re going to follow the guidance."

He added, “I think it means we’re going in the right direction.”

Stith noted that Hempstead has many people with low incomes, and was especially hard hit by the virus. The governor’s announcement that the state would be distributing 3 million test kits would help, he said.

The district had several drives to distribute test kits.

“Those helped in early detection of COVID, so people could self-isolate early and lessen the spread of COVID,” Stith said of the kits.

While the governor said COVID-19 indicators are rising, medical experts say the official numbers are vast undercounts because many people are doing at-home tests that are not reported to the state.

Nassau County registered 503 new cases on Monday, while Suffolk County had 425. Infectious disease experts such as Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of public health and epidemiology for Northwell Health, have said they think the actual numbers could be about 10 times those figures each day.

Some medical experts said it was too soon to say whether masks will be needed in September in schools, since the COVID-19 situation can change so rapidly.

“Things change week to week. So it is something that districts and everybody really needs to keep their finger on the pulse of. It could change tomorrow,” said Dr. Normadeane Armstrong, a professor of epidemiology at Molloy University.

“I think the governor was correct saying right now we’re safe, kind of stable, let’s see in the future, in the next few weeks,” she said.

Still, if numbers start rising rapidly beyond where they already are, requiring masks could be necessary, she said. “If that really is increasing daily, then I would say yes,” mandated masks should return.

Dr. Mundeep Kainth, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, said the first thing she would like to see mandated is vaccines for children, since that offers the most protection against the virus.

"Schools are known for spreading respiratory illnesses," and now they no longer have mitigation measures in places such as social distancing, cohorts, and limited sports and trips, she said.

Hochul said that even though COVID-19 numbers are rising with BA. 5, the state feels strongly children should be in school.

COVID-19 numbers are “trending upward and we expect it to continue to increase,” she said.

But “if we have learned anything, we know that kids need to be in school,” the governor added. “One of the biggest takeaways that we’ve talked about in our analysis” is “the effect on children of not being in a school setting, and we are still dealing with the aftermath today. It is our objective … that they be in the classroom for in-person learning this fall once again.”

For Dominick Palma, superintendent of the Merrick school system, Hochul's mask announcement means “we have a shot of opening the school year in a more normalized fashion.”

He noted that the prior two school years started with a mask mandate.

He also praised the distribution of test kits, and that the state was doing advance planning regarding the pandemic.

Augustine E. Tornatore, superintendent of the Riverhead school district, said, “We are encouraged and pleased with the governor’s decision not to require masks when school opens for the 2022-23 school year. We remain vigilant in taking the CDC’s guidelines to help ensure all of our students and faculty remain safe and healthy.”

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