Cuomo: Local schools can now lift mask mandates, but only for outdoor activities

Following several days of mixed messaging and mass confusion among school communities across the state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Monday morning that local school districts will be given individual discretion on mask policies — but only as it relates to outdoor activities.

Schools should continue to require students to wear masks indoors according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mr. Cuomo said. The governor added that the CDC has told New York State officials it is unlikely to change its policy for several more weeks, meaning a full release from the mask mandate would not take effect until next school year for most districts.

“They were not comfortable with [lifting the] indoor mask requirement,” the governor said of the CDC.

Mr. Cuomo said the lifting of outdoor mask wearing will help align school policies with the summer camps that will soon begin.

In the Southold School District Monday afternoon, Southold Superintendent Anthony Mauro announced that the district will make the wearing of masks optional when students are outdoors.

“At this time we are also starting the systematic removal of the sneeze guards in our classrooms,” Dr. Mauro wrote in the letter.

Mattituck-Cutchogue and Riverhead administrators also announced they had made outdoor mask wearing optional.

“This of course is a family choice and should you wish to have your child(ren) continue to wear masks, this will be allowed,” wrote Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent Jill Gierasch. “Please keep in mind, social distancing guidance and restrictions for large scale events remain in effect. I recognize for many families and staff members you wished for a different outcome which included lifted restrictions for indoor activities. It is our understanding that the Center for Disease Control did not support this for several reasons, but expect updated guidance in hopes for a more flexible classroom setting for September to be forthcoming.”

The issue of mask mandates in schools reached a fever pitch this weekend following the release of a Friday letter from New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker to the CDC that suggested the state could relax mask mandates beginning Monday. In the letter, Dr. Zucker stated that New York hoped to reconcile its school and camp guidelines with indoor mask use being “strongly encouraged but not required for students, campers, and staff/teachers/counselors who are not fully vaccinated” and outdoor masks no longer being required.

“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,” Dr. Zucker concluded in his letter to CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. “We plan to make this guidance effective on Monday, June 7.”

The timing of reports about the letter, on a Friday afternoon with no clear guidance given to school administrators, led to an avalanche of confusion and concern among parents and school officials.

New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta called the announcement “whiplash-inducing news.”

“The release of this letter on a Friday afternoon, with no consultation or advance notice, is too typical of what we have all experienced throughout the pandemic,” read a separate message released Saturday by the Council of School Superintendents. “But it’s also worse, in creating expectations among parents for immediate changes in district policies, without either explicit legal authority for action or clarity in specific requirements that may need to be considered in making any changes.”

Local districts communicated to parents Sunday that guidance from the state education department would prevent them from lifting mask mandates in time for Monday’s school sessions.

“All students and staff must continue to wear masks tomorrow until further notice,” wrote interim Riverhead superintendent Christine Tona Sunday. “As we experience summer-like weather, frequent mask breaks will be in place. If at any time this direction changes, I will keep you informed.”

Dr. Mauro said in a similar letter Sunday that despite recent news reports, mask mandates had to remain in place. He highlighted a specific portion of the letter from the state Department of Education that said “schools should continue to operate under their existing procedures until further notice” as the state allows the CDC time to respond. In his communication with parents Monday afternoon, he reiterated that the state and federal agencies will continue to guide his district’s decision making.

Mr. Cuomo and Dr. Zucker finally said Monday that conversations have now taken place with the CDC and both took exception to claims of mixed messaging.

“There was no confusion with the schools,” the governor said in response to a reporter’s question. “We never said there would be no more masks on Monday.”

In a telephone interview Monday, Dr. Mauro said that it was confusing at times after Friday’s reports but the school’s decisions all year were based “on guidance [from agencies], not statements and letters that go to other people.”

He said that while he hasn’t polled parents on their feelings about masks in schools, he knows different people have different viewpoints.

“It’s very personal to each person based on their own individual experiences over the last year and a half,” he said.

The confusion this weekend served as fodder for political rivals of the governor, including local Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who has announced his intent to run for governor in 2022. Following Monday’s announcement, Mr. Zeldin questioned the governor’s leadership in a tweet that mocked a special Emmy Award the governor received for his response to the pandemic.

“On Thur, NY was mandating students wear masks indoors & outdoors at school. On Fri, that was reversed. On Sun, the reversal was reversed,” the tweet read. “Just now, Cuomo reversed 1/2 of yesterday’s reversed reversal, saying no more mask mandate outside. Emmy Award winning COVID ‘leadership?'”

Mr. Zeldin participated in a rally Wednesday in Hauppauge alongside parents and advocacy groups to demand the governor lift the mask mandates for students.

“Our kids have suffered too much already throughout this pandemic in so many destructive ways, developmentally, mentally, emotionally and physically,” Mr. Zeldin said at the rally.

The governor said Monday that “virtually all” COVID restrictions will be lifted once the state reaches 70% of residents having received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. He said currently New York is at 68.6 percent and state officials who appeared at the press conference estimated the state will reach that goal within one to three weeks.

“Just 1.4% to go,” Mr. Cuomo said.

But the governor said schools will be an exception to that rule and will continue to follow direction from the CDC.