Students in class at the Dutch Broadway Elementary School in Elmont...

Students in class at the Dutch Broadway Elementary School in Elmont on Nov. 18, 2020. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

With the end of the mask mandate in schools statewide, Wednesday marks an enormous moment for the region — both in the battle against COVID-19 and in the march toward normalcy.

But it does not mark the end of the pandemic or the end to important and necessary measures still needed to combat it.

Gov. Kathy Hochul is right to allow children and teachers alike to remove their masks and to show their smiles in school, as tremendous declines in cases and hospitalizations continue to indicate a slow but steady waning of the pandemic across the state. Long Island's seven-day positive test result percentage, for instance, now stands at under 2%.

But the quick policy shift led to some confusion among school districts on details like how to handle school buses and quarantines. The state must continue to provide clear guidance even as the mandate is lifted.

The removal of the mask requirement will work best if families are thoughtful about and committed to other steps critical to fighting COVID-19. That includes testing whenever a child, teacher or family member has COVID symptoms — and not sending a child to school who is symptomatic. And, importantly, it demands an increase in vaccination. The vaccination rate among 5-to-11-year-olds remains low.

New York State officials found the effectiveness of Pfizer’s vaccine against COVID infection plummeted from 68% to 12% for children aged 5 to 11 during the omicron surge, possibly because they had a lower dose. But the vaccine did protect well against serious illness and public health experts still recommend the vaccine as a safe way to protect children from COVID-19 more broadly.

While the pandemic is currently on a welcome decline, Hochul and local officials will have to pay attention to what happens once the masks come off. If the data continues its downward trend, those in school should be able to keep the masks off. But if COVID spikes once more, or if new variants lead to new cases or, most concerningly, more hospitalizations among the general population, Hochul and her team must be willing to reinstitute the mask mandate quickly if necessary — and school districts must be flexible and prepared for such a shift. Just as data guided Wednesday's policy shift, it also should guide future policy changes, even if that means reinstating masks or adding other requirements.

The end to the mask mandate doesn't mean an end to masks. Plenty of parents, children, teachers, and staff will show up to school Wednesday with masks in place. Just because the mandate is over doesn't mean that the protection masks provide isn't wanted by some to keep themselves or at-risk loved ones safe. No one should be ridiculed, critiqued, or disparaged for choosing to wear a mask. Schools should provide a climate where those choices are embraced.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.