The Locust Valley Board of Education voted unanimously on Aug. 30 to hire an outside law firm, Hamburger, Maxson, Yaffe & Martingale to file suit in New York Supreme Court against New York state to fight the school mask mandate ordered by the state Department of Health. Trustee Shawn Steele did not attend the meeting.
The district joined the Massapequa School District in filing the lawsuit last Friday.
Several residents complained about the mandate at school board meetings on Aug. 30 and 31, arguing that parents should decide whether a child should wear a mask in school. Others disagreed, though those expressing the parental-choice sentiment appeared to outnumber those who supported the mandate. Some residents said they didn’t attend the meetings because they were afraid to voice their opinions.
Jasmine Contois, of Locust Valley, said she knew of parents who worried that they might be threatened at a board meeting. Contois has two children, ages 9 and 5, attending Locust Valley schools. Her grandfather died from Covid-19, which she said was the reason why her children learned remotely last year. “I was terrified to send my kids to school after losing my grandfather,” she said. “Not saying goodbye, holding his hand, seeing him in the casket …”
Her children would be vaccinated if that were possible, Contois said, but without that option she wanted the mask mandate at school, not only to protect them but also other children, who may not be able to fight off the virus. The issue has caused a division among parents in the school district.
“Locust Valley is pro-mask and Bayville is anti-mask,” Contois said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there, but if wearing a mask protects one kid, why not wear it? Without my kids, I’m nothing.”
Renata Solomou, who also lives in Locust Valley, said she supported parental choice on masks in school. Her two children, who are 8 and 5½, didn’t attend the first two weeks of school because they didn’t want to wear a mask. They went back the third week, and told their mother they were very unhappy, she said.
“In Locust Valley Intermediate, there is no air conditioning and it’s very hard to breath there,” Solomou said. “I experienced it myself. My son receives services [receiving speech therapy]. I’ve seen him regress since Covid. It’s difficult for him to understand facial cues, what people are saying, and wearing the mask hurts him behind his ears.”
Solomou, who is originally from Venezuela, said the issue is not about winning or losing in so far as whether children must continue to wear masks in school. “We are having our rights violated,” she explained. “I think we are becoming a borderline socialist state.”
Locust Valley School Board President Brian Nolan and other trustees said at the Aug. 30 meeting that it was troublesome that school districts had local control of the mask issue, and then, shortly before school started, it was taken away. Gov. Kathy Hochul said she would direct the Department of Health to issue the school mask mandate on her first day in office last month. The mandate was announced on Aug. 30.
The cost of hiring a firm to pursue the lawsuit had not been made public at press time. Several calls to attorney Andrew Martingale, who is representing the district, were not returned.
The district may have an uphill battle. In 1905, Massachusetts pastor Henning Jacobson refused to get a smallpox vaccine, citing the Constitution’s guarantee that a state could not “deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” His case went to the Supreme Court, which disagreed, ruling, 7-2, that one person’s liberty can’t deprive his neighbors of their liberty.
“I think that hiring a lawyer for this is ridiculous,” Contois said. “Why should my tax dollars go to that? By the time this weighs out, we hopefully won’t need to wear masks and will have wasted money. The money could be used for our kids instead.”
Solomou said she supported the lawsuit, although she acknowledged that the issue was driving the community apart. “We were once a tight community,” she said. “I think we can work together.”