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Mask Mandate and Subsequent Court Flip-Flops Bring Turmoil to Local Schools

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Frustrated parents and school officials become divided on how to proceed while confusion looms.

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School districts in Westchester and Putnam Counties are having mixed reactions to last week’s ruling by a New York State Supreme Court judge who overturned the state’s mask mandate in schools. Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Thomas Rademaker ruled the statewide mask mandate was unconstitutional and enacted without approval from the state Legislature and that Hochul had the state Health Department improperly include the mandate in an emergency rule. The state mask mandate was initially issued by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul in Aug. 2021 requiring students and staff to wear masks indoors.

When new COVID-19 cases started to spike in December, Hochul announced a temporary mask mandate that required New Yorkers to wear a mask in all indoor public spaces unless businesses implement a vaccine requirement; the mandate was supported by State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett.

After the NYS Supreme Court’s ruling rescinding the mandate, New York Attorney General Letitia James, acting on behalf of the New York State Education Department, immediately filed to appeal the decision. The Appellate Court granted a stay, meaning the mask rule will remain in effect during the appeals process.

School superintendents were then instructed by the State Education Department (SED) to continue to follow the mask mandate rule despite Rademaker’s ruling. Between the State Supreme Court ruling and the subsequent appeal process, New York school districts are reeling in a state of confusion between enforcing the state mandate or making masks optional.

School district superintendents responded differently to parents about the ruling. Some upheld the ruling and made masking optional while others supported the SED and kept the mask rule in place.

After the Supreme Court’s ruling Eric Byrne, Superintendent of Schools for the Rye City School District announced the mask mandate had been lifted and mask-wearing would be optional effective immediately. However, Joel Adelberg, Superintendent of Schools for the Bedford Central School District, asked parents to still have their children masked while the appeal was being litigated in the courts. He also advised administrators “not to engage with students who refuse to wear a mask at this time.”

Some parents were elated when they heard about the ruling and were happy to tell their children they no longer had to wear masks. But after receiving letters from superintendents upholding the mask mandate, parents became angry.

“I had told my six-year-old he could go without a mask but then I had to take that back while dressing him,” says Patrick Donovan whose son is in the Pleasantville Union Free School District. “My child’s heart was broken and I had to explain it all over to him. He has to wear the mask five hours a day when learning to read, speak and socialize. There’s no logic to it.”

Donovan had read Pleasantville Superintendent Tina DeSa’s letter that stipulated there would be no change in the requirement to wear masks in school buildings. A similar letter was sent to parents from Dr. Jeremy Luft, Superintendent of Schools for the Putnam Valley Central School District.

Fanya Gleason, whose six-year-old is in first grade at the Yorktown Central School District, says she was very excited about the ruling at first. “It meant that I have options to send my healthy kid into school without a mask. Masking has been a greater risk to my child’s development and mental and emotional health.”

Gleason did say that YCS Superintendent Dr. Ron Hattar did write that masking was still required. “He said the situation [about the mask mandate] was very fluid and I take that as a positive. He did put out a notice that said from a legal standpoint, masking would be enforced. I’m jealous of parents whose children attend Long Island schools where masks are now optional.”

According to CNN at least 13 New York school districts have already announced mask-wearing is now optional. Long Island School districts no longer requiring masks include districts in Bellmore-Merrick, Glen Cove, Massapequa, and Farmingdale.

Some parents also feel school districts are enforcing mask-wearing because they are under pressure from unions representing teachers and staff.

“Are the school districts’ priorities not to get sued?” asks a parent who requested not to be named for fear of retaliation and who has a first-grader attending the Scarsdale School District. “It seems like the district is blatantly lying to parents about a law that doesn’t exist. At the end of the day, they are promising the union that they are not going to step on their toes.”

For those running private preschools and daycare working with children ages two and under who are not consistently masked, the latest surge of the Omicron variant has been very stressful. Lisa Montalto, Director of the Once Upon a Time Preschool & Daycare in Putnam Valley says she follows the guidance from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services and at the same time experiences how difficult it is for parents to understand the role administrators have to play in this controversy. “The problem does not lie with those of us who are not medical professionals but yet, we are the ones that have to enforce the rulings. I feel for parents these days but there needs to be recognition of our job to keep the children in our charge safe on a day to day basis.”

Montalto says the fact that parents could choose masking as an option right now is unsettling. “The least we should and can do is consider holding off on this conversation until the springtime when there are more outdoor activities taking place.”

The mask mandate was set to expire tomorrow, February 1, but late Friday Governor Kathy Hochul extended it until February 10 while the Appellate Court hears the case. The Appellate Court originally planned to begin proceedings on Friday but decided to give sides more time to file written arguments.

Abby Luby is a writer and journalist living in the Hudson Valley. She currently writes for The Examiner and has written for The New York Daily News, SolveClimateNews, The Villager, The Real Deal, and the Record Review (www.abbyluby.com). Her feature writing on food and on the arts has been published in Hook Magazine, Valley Table Magazine, Edible Hudson Valley, Roll Magazine, Living@HomeCT, the Poughkeepsie Journal, The Stamford Advocate/Greenwich Time. Luby began writing creative non-fiction and poetry eight years ago. Her published short stories appear in the literary journals Parhelion and Persimmon Tree.

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