As Saratoga County school districts finalize what some are calling “stay open” plans, mask wearing will be required at the start of the year, but it’s still unclear when and if schools will be able to loosen those requirements.
Some districts – including Shenendehowa, Mechanicville and others – have outlined plans to loosen mask requirements if the county enters a lower level of transmission risk, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Saratoga County remained in the agency’s “high transmission” category as of Thursday.
The districts in recent weeks rolled out plans that would have allowed parents to decide whether or not to have their children wear masks if the county fell to lower transmission levels, but school leaders are now waiting on state guidance that clarifies Gov. Kathy Hochul’s statement from last week that masks would be required in all schools across the state.
“We would have been starting school in masks regardless, unless there was a change (in the county’s virus transmission level),” Mechanicville Superintendent Bruce Potter said Friday. “Now, we will follow what the state (Department of Health) puts out.”
Mechanicville’s draft plan would enable “family choice” on masks starting at substantial transmission,” but only for vaccinated students, and for all students at low and moderate community transmission.
Potter on Friday awaited a possible update to state guidance – which former Gov. Andrew Cuomo suggested would not be forthcoming, but Hochul has since signaled otherwise – to see if he would have to change plans for the district.
The state Health Department released a “commissioner’s determination” letter around 5:45 p.m. on Friday that said all individuals over two years old would be required to wear masks at all times indoors regardless of vaccination status; the mandate allowed for exceptions for people with medical or developmental reasons preventing them from wearing masks, as well as when students were playing wind instruments.
Like nearly every other district in the region, parents in Mechanicville have split over whether or not masks should be required in school. In some districts, parents have lined up during public comment sessions to express strong opposition to masks, and many parents have said masks will do more harm to students’ mental health than good in protecting them against COVID.
“Quite honestly, it’s been challenging. You can’t make hard-and-fast rules that meet everyone where they are at,” Potter said of the mask debates. “Our community, like many, is all over with their views and beliefs. We are trying to find a middle ground that promotes a safe and healthy environment not only physically but also from a mental health perspective where we can work toward an environment of normalcy.”
Potter said masks have been an effective part of a multi-layered approach to preventing the spread of COVID in schools, which also includes social distancing, health screenings and a detailed quarantine protocol. He also said he has deferred to the district physician in developing the district plan to return students to school.
But Potter hopes that any new state guidance won’t be so limiting, especially in spacing requirements on school buses and in the cafeteria, that it cuts into the district’s ability to bring all students to school buildings every day. He also said he wants to be able to plan for an “off ramp” or thresholds to start unwinding some precautions. Indefinite masking is not a viable policy, he said.
“Just like anything: When is it over?” Potter said. “When is it ok? We need light at the end of the tunnel, we need a path forward.”
Shenendehowa’s plan, while subject to change if new state guidelines emerge, also allows for a gradual unwinding of masking and other requirements if the county shifts into lower transmission levels.
The district’s plan would require masks at all times other than scheduled mask breaks under high or substantial transmission levels; the plan would then shift to recommended mask wearing when three feet of distancing can not be maintained at moderate community transmission; the plan shifts again to encouraging masks at low community transmission. The plan also carries an all caps caveat: or pursuant to new state mandates.
In Saratoga Springs, district officials outlined a masking requirement for students even before Hochul took charge of the state government and promised to impose a masking requirement in schools.
Saratoga Springs Superintendent Michael Patton at Thursday’s board meeting said it was possible the district’s “stay open” plan would need to be tweaked slightly before the start of the school but that most elements were in place.
“Our district’s primary objective is to plan for the full return of in-person learning for all students five days a week,” he said.