Suffolk County Health Department to follow CDC guidance on masks in schools; announcement ‘imminent’

In the wake of newly released state guidance, many North Fork schools have not yet made decisions about mask mandates and COVID-19 restrictions for September as they wait for guidance from the county health department. 

The New York State Department of Health announced last week that mask mandates and other COVID rules will be left to the discretion of individual school districts. 

“With the end of the state disaster emergency on June 25, 2021, school districts are re-established as the controlling entity for schools,” NYSDOH Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said in a statement. “Schools and school districts should develop plans to open in-person in the fall as safely as possible, and I recommend following guidance from the CDC and local health departments.”

A spokesperson for the Suffolk County Department of Health said the department is planning to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an announcement will be made “imminently.”

The CDC currently recommends all students, staff and visitors wear masks in schools, especially due to the more contagious delta variant. The CDC also recommends schools maintain at least three feet of physical distance between students in classrooms and advises vaccination for those 12 and older, among other safety measures implemented in schools this past year. 

Riverhead Superintendent Augustine Tornatore said in an email Saturday that he should have more information the following week, after the Suffolk County Department of Health meets with school districts and he brings “all the data to the board” before finalizing plans for September. 

“I ask for everyone’s patience as we plan our reopening of schools,” he said. “I understand this is a time of anxiety for our students and parents/guardians.” 

Greenport superintendent Marlon Small and Southold superintendent Anthony Mauro similarly said the districts are waiting on a decision from the Suffolk County Department of Health before finalizing reopening plans.

Phil Kent, principal and superintendent at New Suffolk School, said the district has not yet made a final decision either.

The Mattituck-Cutchogue school district did not respond to a request for comment this week.

The New York State PTA called the state’s decision “unexpected” in an email to parents.

“We do not have many answers yet,” NYS PTA wrote. “Specifically, we do NOT have answers on things like distancing, masking in schools, and remote instruction — other than what’s written in the current CDC guidance,” the email added.

New York Commissioner of Education Dr. Betty Rosa wrote a letter to Dr. Zucker asking him to reconsider the DOH announcement, noting that COVID-19 requires “timely advice and supervision” from the state health department.

“The circumstances enveloping the Executive Chamber this week should not prevent the Department of Health from the execution of its responsibilities to the public, as has been promised by the Governor’s office for months,” said a public release from New York State Education Department, referring to the bombshell report outlining sexual harassment allegations against Gov. Andrew Cuomo.