Long Island students will have to wear masks to school on Monday because the state has not formally changed its school mask mandate, despite an announcement Friday that state officials planned to lift school mask requirements at the start of the week.
The New York State Education Department told school districts Sunday in a guidance update that state health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker’s letter to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was to obtain a response from the federal agency on lifting the school mask mandate, “but it has not changed any existing arrangements.”
“Therefore, schools should continue to operate under their existing procedures until further notice,” the education department wrote to districts. “No changes have been, or will be, made by the Executive until after Monday June 7 to afford the CDC an opportunity to respond to the letter.”
State officials said Friday they planned to lift the mask mandate in schools starting Monday, as long as the CDC did not object. The change would go against federal guidance, which recommends masks to be worn in schools.
The state’s announcement “created a colossal mess” for districts, the New York State Council of School Superintendents wrote in a letter Sunday morning. The announcement on Friday made it seem that the rules were changing, even though they hadn’t, the council said.
Commack School District Superintendent Donald James said he was “disappointed” that the mask mandate will remain in place Monday.
“The release of the letter on a Friday afternoon created mass confusion, not only among superintendents and staff but among parents,” James said Sunday. “And then here we are on Sunday [afternoon] and we find out the letter doesn’t mean what we thought it meant. And now we are going into a heat wave this week.”
The Commack School District has been among the most vocal in criticizing the facial covering rule.
Earlier this month, the district said students would no longer need to wear masks at their desks or during recess or physical education classes, as long as they stayed six feet apart. But that decision was vetoed by the Cuomo administration, school officials said.
The Cuomo administration press office did not immediately respond to a comment request on Sunday. The state Education Department did not comment beyond forwarding a copy of its letter to school districts.
Robert Dillon, superintendent for Nassau BOCES, said Friday’s announcement sent Long Island school districts “in all different directions.” BOCES, which oversees shared services for 56 school districts, will continue to require masks on grounds because the law has not changed, even as “wants and wishes” have, Dillon said.
“I’m the biggest advocate for getting back to what it was pre-March of 2020,” Dillon said Sunday, before the education department sent out its renewed guidance. “But I am not in the power to do that.”
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said the state needs to clarify the mask rules “immediately.”
“The conflicting messages coming from the state regarding masks in schools are causing confusion for school officials and parents,” Curran said in a statement. “This decision must be put in the hands of the educators and parents who know their children and particular circumstances best.”
The state education department said Zucker’s letter sought to address the differences in federal guidance for camps and schools.
Zucker said the state would encourage students, teachers and staff who have not been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to wear masks indoors but would not require them to do so.
Fully vaccinated people would not need to wear masks but “schools and camps may choose to implement stricter standards.”
“If there is any data or science that you are aware of that contradicts moving forward with this approach, please let me know as soon as possible. We plan to make this guidance effective on Monday June 7,” the letter said.
Connetquot schools superintendent Lynda Adams said the update was likely “frustrating” after the “confusion” caused by Friday’s announcement.
The mask easement letter and information “should never have been released without their willingness to move forward with it,” Adams wrote in a letter to parents.
Connetquot will encourage staff to take “greater breaks” and students to play separately on the playground this week so they can remove masks outdoors in the warmer weather.
Before the state education department’s letter went out Sunday afternoon, some districts had already told community members that students would not have to wear masks if the state health department approved the changes.
Midde Country Central School District had previously told parents masks would be encouraged but not required starting Monday with approval of the lifting of the mask mandates.
“The anticipated changes in the mask mandates have not been approved. Until further notice we will continue to follow masking guidelines. All students and staff will continue to wear masks while in the school,” Middle Country announced Sunday afternoon.
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