Though Gov. Andrew Cuomo last announced that a mask mandate would be lifted in schools, state officials decided Monday that students should wear them inside for the rest of the school year, while parents expressed varying views about unmasking their children in school going forward. Districts can, however, choose to opt out of masking requirements.
Oceanside School District Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Harrington wrote to residents before Monday’s update, noting that the district planned to follow unmasking guidelines if approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state health commissioner.
“We understand that people have different comfort levels regarding masks,” Harrington wrote. “Mask wearing will be optional, leaving the choice a personal one. In the event that [state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard] Zucker’s proposed guidance is not accepted by the CDC, we will keep you updated. One thing is for sure, we are heading in the right direction, and this is all a great sign for September.”
Cuomo said that state officials spoke to the CDC on Monday morning, and the federal agency was “comfortable with the outside mask requirement” being lifted, but “they were not comfortable with the inside mask requirement” being dropped.
“They make a good case with the inside and the potential hazards on the inside, and there’s only a couple of weeks [of school] left, “Cuomo said. “So we don’t want to make any mistakes.”
State Education Department officials told school districts Sunday that Zucker’s letter to the CDC was to obtain a response from the federal agency on lifting the school mask mandate, but that no changes to the regulations were official.
So schools should continue to operate “under their existing procedures,” giving the CDC time to respond to the governor’s plan.
On Friday, state officials announced that they intended to lift the mandate in school as long as the CDC approved it, even though it would go against federal guidelines. The SED said Zucker’s letter sought to address the differences in federal guidance for camps and schools.
Though Zucker had pushed to lift mask mandates, the state still encouraged students, teachers and staff who had not been fully vaccinated to wear masks indoors, even if they are not required to. Fully vaccinated people would not need to wear masks, but “schools and camps may choose to implement stricter standards,” his letter read.
The push to unmask children was met with mixed reviews locally. Regina Palmer said she has two children in the district, a seventh-grader at Oceanside Middle School and a ninth-grader at Oceanside High School, and she was comfortable with them not wearing facial coverings.
“It is in my opinion that our children should not be required to wear masks in schools or camps,” she said. “Those who feel differently at this point should by all means continue to mask their children.”
Nicki Levine shared a similar sentiment. “I am imploring the schools to start advocating for the human rights of our voiceless youth and redress our state government asking for the mask mandate for children to be lifted immediately,” she said. “We have a crisis now that needs to be resolved now. Our children are suffering immensely, and we need a leader to step up.”
Jen Saia said she believed parents should decide. “Children are gathering in private homes, unmasked, participating in activities outside of school, unmasked,” she said. “Why should the school setting be any different? We’re doing a disservice to our children by continuing to mask them with no questions asked, and it is impacting all facets of their development.”
Robyn Lazara offered a different perspective, noting that she had a 9-year-old enrolled at Oceanside School No. 3. She said that she was unsure why parents were so focused on the mask mandate this late in the year after their children have been masked for nearly the entire school year already, and said that the opposition to masks is “rooted in misinformation.”
“I disagree with the push to have children no longer have to wear masks at school and camp until they are fully vaccinated against Covid,” she said. “. . . Our young kids aren’t vaccinated yet, so until they are, we need to follow the science and keep them masked in public spaces.”
Over the past few weeks, there have been rallies to end mandatory mask wearing at schools and camps across the state and Nassau County.
On May 26, parents, school board members and legislators hosted a rally at the Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building in Mineola, urging officials to unmask children in schools and camps. The group demanded that Cuomo and County Executive Laura Curran lift mask restrictions for children.
The state Department of Health announced last month that only children between ages 2 and 5 were no longer required to wear masks for child care programs, but many parents have pushed for the age limit to be raised, even if older children are not yet eligible for a vaccine.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for those ages 12 to 15 on May 10, and the CDC approved it May 12. Hours later, Cuomo gave it the OK. Those younger than 12, however, are still not eligible for inoculations.
While elected officials and hospitals across Long Island hosted news events when children began receiving the vaccines, many parents have expressed concerns about inoculating their children, and now more have been vocal about not wanting them to wear masks.
Curran said there needs to be clearer guidance on masking children in schools going forward.
“The conflicting messages coming from the state regarding masks in schools are causing confusion for school officials and parents,” she said in a statement. “We need clarification immediately. This decision must be put in the hands of the educators and parents who know their children and particular circumstances best.”