Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman signed executive orders on Jan. 6 directing local boards of education to vote this month on whether their districts should mandate mask use, while also lifting mask requirements for all county agencies and the state’s temporary mask mandate in public places.
The orders read in part, “Given the historical data on Covid-19 and the ongoing debate over whether masks are more harmful than beneficial to children and to school environments in general, we should protect the freedoms and statutory rights of students and parents by resting with the parents the decision whether their children should wear masks in school.”
According to the orders, school boards must vote “to determine whether or not parents and children should be granted the constitutional right to reject mask mandates while in the classroom.”
Blakeman shared his dissatisfaction with Gov. Kathy Hochul’s mask mandate as early as mid-December, before he was sworn into office. He had said that because there was not a Covid crisis in Nassau County, he would not require businesses to adhere to the governor’s order. “What the governor did was paint the whole state with a broad brush,” Blakeman said.
It was not surprising to many that, once inaugurated, Blakeman went one step further, focusing on schools. Parents in some districts, including Locust Valley, had voiced their displeasure with the mask mandate since last summer, saying the decision on whether children wear masks to school should be made by parents. The Locust Valley Board of Education went so far as to vote on Aug. 30 not to comply with the mandate, before reversing its decision less than 24 hours later after receiving a letter from state Education Commissioner Dr. Betty Rosa. She wrote that failure to follow the mandate would amount to breaking the law, which would result in civil and criminal penalties and the removal of board President Brian Nolan.
The Locust Valley Central School District joined the Massapequa School District to file a lawsuit against the state in State Supreme Court in September, spending roughly $49,000 for the services of an outside law firm only to have the suit rejected in November.
Asked last week whether masks would no longer be required, in accordance with Blakeman’s orders, the LVCSD declined to comment. Nolan could not be reached by press time. The Oyster Bay-East Norwich Central School District also declined to comment.
Denise Trezza, of Oyster Bay, described herself as “pro-choice” in her lifestyle and whether people should receive a Covid vaccination. “But I’m not when it comes to wearing masks,” she said. “. . . To ask someone to wear a mask in a public place is not a big deal. My concern is, however, for kids in preschool. With a mask, they can’t see people’s expressions, which is important for them to see.”
Ann Marie Longo, who was a member of the OBEN Board of Education from 2006 to 2018, said that although she understands how hard it must be for children to wear masks in school, she believes it’s important. She wears a mask because it keeps people healthy and safe, she said.
“I know a lot of parents don’t want their kids to wear masks, and that it’s a tough thing to manage,” Longo said. “I don’t think [Blakeman] will be able to do anything with [his order]. In my opinion [Covid] is never going to end.”
Shortly after Blakeman announced his orders, Rosa issued a statement that read, in part, “Counties are required to enforce school masking regulations. . . . Counties do not have the legal authority to require boards of education to vote on specific issues.”
Andy Pallotta, the president of New York State United Teachers, voiced his disbelief in Blakeman’s contention that nearly two years into the pandemic, the importance of mask wearing is being debated. “Particularly given the current spike in cases, now is not the time to do away with mask wearing in schools,” Pallotta said in a statement. “Public health experts have been unequivocally clear that masks are an important part of the strategies designed to keep students, educators and our communities safe.”
Several local officials, including State Sen. Jim Gaughran and Assemblyman Chuck Lavine, issued a statement asking Blakeman to rescind the order. “Over the past two years 3,435 of our friends, neighbors and loved ones in Nassau County have died from Covid-19,” it read. “We are grateful Governor Hochul has required the simple precaution of masks in schools to keep our schools open and our kids safe. At this point in the pandemic, when pediatric hospitalizations are spiking at dangerous levels, it would be the height of irresponsibility to ignore Governor Hochul’s vital efforts to protect public health.”
According to the State Department of Health, between Dec. 5 and Jan 1, Covid-19 hospitalizations rose in all age groups, but none faster than those 18 and younger. Hospitalizations for that age group spiked more than 700 percent, while those for all ages combined increased two-fold statewide.
“New York State Education Law is clear as to who has authority over schools, namely local boards of education, the state education commissioner, the New York State Board of Regents, the governor and the State Legislature,” Michael J. Kelly, president of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association, wrote in a letter to Blakeman last week. “The laws are designed to prevent regulatory and legislative chaos. Counties have no more authority to direct school board matters than do schools to legislate county affairs.”
Scott Brinton, Annemarie Durkin and Cristina
Arroyo contributed to this story.