State health officials on Friday signaled a dramatic easing of school-based masking requirements that could take effect as soon as Monday and allow districts to lift nearly all masking requirments inside schools.
In a letter to the federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, state Commissioner of Health Howard Zucker said the state planned to change its masking guidance for schools and summer campus unless the CDC provided data suggesting the state should not ease the masking requirements.
If implemented, the new guidelines would mark a major change to current masking requirements and enable districts to allow vaccinated staff and students to go without masks inside school buildings, where masks have been the rule throughout the school year.
The letter indicates the following new guidance would go into effect Monday, if the CDC does not intervene:
- Indoor mask use will be strongly encouraged, but not required, for students, campers and school staff who are not fully vaccinated;
- Masks are not required outdoors, but unvaccinated individuals are encouraged to wear masks in certain high-risk situations like crowded areas;
- Fully-vaccinated students, campers and staff do not have to wear masks indoors or outdoors.
Schools and camps will be able to impose stricter standards, which shifts what could be a largely-contentious decision to local school leaders as the end of the school year nears. Implementing a rule change is likely to present numerous challenges to districts, which likely do not have a comprehensive list of which students and staff have been vaccinated. Students under age 12 have not been approved for the vaccine yet, leaving many primary students definitively unvaccinated on Monday.
Parents in recent months have increasingly organized to call on state officials and school district leaders to ditch the mask requirements – some mask critics have even likened the requirements to child abuse – and a rally against mask mandates is scheduled for outside the state Capitol on Saturday.
“Lifting this mandate is consistent with the science and CDC guidance for youth camps and makes sense as vaccination rates continue to increase and cases of the virus significantly decline,” state Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, said in a statement Friday, noting he has heard from multiple parents concerned about their kids wearing masks at camps in the summer heat. “Our (Republican) conference has been calling for reasonable and appropriate policies that actually follow the science.”
The state Department of Health letter hinges its planned change to mask guidelines on a difference between the CDC’s school guidelines and the CDC’s youth camps guidelines. While the school guidance still recommends universal indoor masking in schools, the summer camp guidelines allow fully vaccinated individuals to go maskless and allows unvaccinated individuals more leeway to go maskless outside.
“As many camps take place on school grounds, both serve school-age children, and the end of the school year/start of the camp season both occur in June, New York state plans to align our school and camp mask guidance,” Zucker wrote in the letter.
District officials only started to digest the potential changes Friday afternoon as news of the DOH letter spread. Bob Lowry, of the state Council of School Superintendents, on Friday said district administrators still need to see the official guidance or executive order that formalizes the guidlines pointed to in the letter.
Lowry said he expects the new guidelines to play out differently in districts across the state. In some districts, he said, families and staff may already be comfortable with dropping mask requirements, noting that some rural superintendents have been asking about a change to mask policies in recent months. In other districts, school staff or parents may still feel most comfortable with leaving masking requirements in place for the remainder of the year.
“Really, school officials still have to wait for the actual guidance to appear. What ultimately matters is what the formal legal documents proscribe or allow,” Lowry said. “Obviously, it puts school district officials in a position of needing to make a decision, and in some communities there may be across-the-board comfort with easing masking requirements, and in others there may be a sizable share of parents who want mask requirements ended, but there could be employees that are concerend about their health and safety.”
Karen Corona, Schenectady City School District spokesperson, on Friday said district leaders had only just learned about the DOH letter and would review any new guidance and work with the local county health department in making changes to their approach.
“We will closely review and will be making decisions that follow any guidance and recommendations of the local health department,” Corona said.
New York State United Teachers, a statewide teachers union, in a statement Friday criticized the timing of the Department of Health’s letter and urged districts to step cautiously toward easing masking requirements.
“Announcing on a Friday afternoon that masks will now be optional for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people in schools starting Monday — with only three weeks remaining in the school year — is whiplash-inducing news,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said in a statement. “Short of any additional guidance
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