School leaders across the Capital Region this weekend cautioned families that school mask requirements remained in place, for now, citing confusion stirred Friday after state health officials signaled a change to mask mandates was imminent.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday clarified that districts would be allowed to lift outdoor mask requirements only, suggesting it was too late in the school year to successfully withdraw indoor mask mandates that have been in place since the beginning of the school year. Cuomo said state officials discussed the change with the federal Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, which indicated comfort with lifting outdoor mask requirements but not indoor mask requirements.
“If you can go to camp and run around and play volleyball and not wear a mask then on the playground (you shouldn’t have to wear a mask),” Cuomo said in a press conference Monday.
While state officials still need to release a specific update to guidance allowing districts to ease outdoor masking, Cuomo’s comments appeared to end days of confusion over how state officials planned to change the guidance after a Friday letter from the state Department of Health signaled officials were considering lifting indoor masking requirements for vaccinated individuals.
State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker on Friday in a letter to the federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention said the state planned to significantly ease mask requirements for schools and summer camps in guidance as soon as this week unless the federal agency offered a reason not to.
The letter questioned the difference in federal guidance between schools and summer camps and indicated the state planned to move forward with lifting masking requirements for vaccinated individuals inside schools and at summer camps and recommending, but not requiring, masking for unvaccinated individuals. The letter suggested school districts would be able to adopt more restrictive policies.
Widely reported as a signal state officials planned to lift masking requirements soon, school officials across the state scrambled over the weekend to combat any perception that school masking requirements had already changed or that state policy had formally changed.
School leaders will not change their own masking requirements, which have been in place since the start of the school year, until reviewing formal state guidance and discussing potential changes with other nearby districts and within local communities. School districts are wrapping up the final weeks of the school year.
The 24 school superintendents in the Capital Region BOCES on Sunday jointly said masking requirements remained in effect, because school leaders had not yet received formal state guidance indicating a policy change.
“Just as we have done throughout the pandemic, we won’t make COVID protocol decisions without guidance from the state health department,” Capital Region BOCES District Superintendent Anita Murphy said in a statement Sunday. “We won’t make any changes to our protocols, including mask wearing, until we’ve had time to receive guidance and discuss any changes with our local health officials, boards of education and communities.”
Many districts sent out the message over the weekend that “school mask requirements remain unchanged at this time” and cited confusion created in the wake of the health department letter.
“Please note that this was a letter, not a mandate, not a pronouncement,” Shenendehowa Superintendent L. Oliver Robinson wrote in a message to the district community Sunday. “Needless to say, that very unorthodox move, to say the least, has created a lot of questions and speculation.”
In his message, Robinson said no policy had changed yet but that district officials would review any new guidance issued by the state.
The State Education Department over the weekend informed district leaders across the state that the health department letter “has not changed any existing arrangements” and was meant as an information request from federal officials. The education department message said no state guidance was expected to change until after Monday.
The confusion fueled a growing debate over the school masking requirements and to what extent students and summer campers will have to wear masks in warming weather. Parents have increasingly agitated against the masking requirements and state lawmakers have increased calls for lifting mask mandates.
Cuomo on Monday suggested there was “no confusion” over the health department level and explained that CDC officials noted there was only two weeks left in the school year and that changing the indoor mask requirements would entail significant efforts to develop new procedures within school buildings – after months of operating under current protocols.
For area high school sports competitions, Section II executive director Ed Dopp said Monday host schools will decide whether masks need to be used.
“The host has the right to say we are requiring masks,” Dopp said. “If they do, then every student is required to do so.”
The exception to that, he said, “is the kid with a doctor’s note” saying he or she is exempt from wearing a mask.
Athletes may continue to wear masks regardless of the particular site’s requirements.
‘Get them vaccinated now’
During his comments Monday, Cuomo also encouraged school districts to actively pursue increasing vaccination rates among students. He highlighted an effort in Connecticut to let students off of school on the day they get vaccinated. He also said schools should use their nurses to vaccinate students and that county health agencies should redirect vaccination teams to schools.
Cuomo said schools had an opportunity now to get more kids vaccinated, which would help make reopening schools in the fall an easier task.
“They should vaccinate the kids in schools,” Cuomo said. “You have them in one place, they are a captive audience, so to speak.”
Reporter Jim Schiltz contributed to this story.