School mask mandate ending in New York, Hochul says

Students and staff in schools can leave their face masks at home on Wednesday for the first time in 18 months, 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.

Hochul called the moment “an important turning point in our war against COVID.”

“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 or continue it. Individual students and staff still have the option to wear masks, and school districts and private schools can still require face coverings if they want.

The dropping of the mandate applies to children ages 2 and older, including those in child care settings.

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.”

The Half Hollow Hills school district also announced on Sunday that masks will be optional starting Wednesday.

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.”

But 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.

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 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.

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.

The governor said authorities will not tolerate bullying of any students who continue to wear masks in schools when it is no longer required.

Individual schools within a district can opt to keep the mask mandate, she indicated.

“My position is to empower the local governments to make the decisions for their entire county,” she said. “But I’ve always said that if there are entities within … whether it is a city, a school district, a school, if they choose to be more restrictive, we will not prohibit that whatsoever.”

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. He will look to guidance from the American Pediatric Association and other medical experts.

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

Kuncham had earlier told Newsday he might consider dropping the mask mandate in the middle and high school, but keeping it at the elementary school level because vaccination rates are so much lower among 5- to 11-year-olds compared to 12- to 17-year-olds.

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.”

“They know exactly what they’re doing. They’re following the data and making decisions,” Battinelli said of health officials. “The best decisions are: when the data changes, you change your mind, versus having fixed beliefs and not actually following the science.”

He acknowledged that people “won’t be in agreement” about what local governments should do, but officials likely “will feel a bit more comfortable making local decisions” without the state mandate.

“But 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,” Battinelli said.

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.

The state earlier this month had already dropped a mandate for masks or proof of vaccination in indoor public locations including restaurants, stores, gyms and theaters.

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 1.93% in figures released Saturday.

Long Island registered 233 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, compared to more than 14,000 at the height of the omicron surge.

Hochul has been under pressure from some vocal parents seeking an end to the mask mandate. But polls indicate that a larger percentage of New Yorkers wanted her to wait for the results of the at-home tests.

A Siena College poll in mid-February found that a majority of New Yorkers — 58% — would rather wait to gather the March test data about the virus before lifting the mask mandate for schoolchildren. Some 30% said the mandate already should have ended, while 10% said it should end when children return to public schools on Monday, after the winter break.

The mask mandate has divided parents, boards of education, and school leaders. Some say it has been a crushing burden for students, with students in the youngest grades never having seen the faces of their classmates in school.

Others contend the mask mandate has been a necessary inconvenience to protect children and teachers from a highly contagious virus that has killed 900,000 Americans.

A group of parents from Long Island filed a lawsuit in January challenging the mask mandate and — for a day — it was dropped after a State Supreme Court judge in Nassau County ruled in their favor.

The state Appellate Division overturned that ruling, and set a March 2 deadline for more papers to be filed in the case.

Medical experts on Long Island said they generally supported the CDC’s new guidelines, though they cautioned that political and education leaders might want to move a little slower on dropping the school mask mandate.

They note that many children — especially in the 5 — to-11 age group — remain unvaccinated against COVID-19. And children under 5 are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was reconfiguring the criteria it uses to assess regions, and that under the new guidelines, more than 70% of Americans live in areas including Long Island where they can now safely take a break from wearing masks in most public situations, as long as they are healthy.

It was a recognition that the country is entering a new, potentially less dangerous phase of the pandemic as it seeks to return to normalcy two years after the virus first emerged here, upending daily life.

Infectious disease experts warn, however, that mask mandates may have to be reinstituted if another dangerous variant of COVID-19 emerges — which they say is possible.

Check back for updates on this developing story.

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