Nearly three dozen area school superintendents called on Gov. Kathy Hochul to chart an exit strategy regarding the requirement for students to wear face masks as the pandemic reaches two years.
The 31 area school chiefs urged Hochul and New York Department of Health Commissioner Mary T. Bassett to work with school leaders on a “Pathway To Normalcy” for New York students.
The joint letter, dated Thursday, was signed by superintendents in Saratoga, Washington, Warren, Hamilton, and Essex counties, from a Saratoga Springs-based BOCES.
It asked the state to consider working with school leaders to develop a pathway to normalcy that consists of a roadmap on masking and promoting extracurricular activities that “see the whole student.”
“While we all understand the need for masking during high rates of transmission, providing specific metrics for when this requirement can be optional as transmission rates decrease or vaccination rates reach a certain threshold is essential to maintaining our focus on teaching and learning,” the letter read.
The superintendents said current guidelines were challenging participation in afterschool and extracurricular activities, essential components of education that are more important than ever during the pandemic.
“We support and advocate vaccination efforts within our communities, however, there is a disconnect of logic between school day events [e.g., PE class, student group work] and afterschool events [e.g., chess club and athletics], which makes it very difficult to explain to our parents and caregivers,” the letter said.
Mechanicville City School District Superintendent Bruce Potter said it has reached the point that families can decide if they want to wear masks.
That’s because of the availability of rapid COVID tests, along with systems in place that have districts partnering with families to have their children stay home and get tested when they’re developing symptoms and not feeling well, he said.
“We understand the science behind mask-wearing as a strong mitigation strategy, especially in schools,” Potter said in an interview Friday.
“But when the mask mandate went out in August, it was just, ‘everyone in schools wear masks,’ and there was no until or about or why or how,” he said. “We need a path to normalcy because we know so much more now.”
The state has to have a plan to remove masks, Potter said, and “it can’t be snuck up on us because of a court ruling on Long Island.”
After a day of confusion, face masks were back in schools across the state Wednesday, after an appeals judge restored New York’s mask order the previous day.
On Monday, a judge in a lower court ruled that Hochul’s administration lacked the authority to mandate that people wear masks while indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic began in March 2020, forcing schools to conduct classes remotely throughout the following school year. Districts throughout the state returned to in-person learning in fall 2021, with all students and school personnel wearing face masks.
Potter pointed out that contact tracing is no longer being conducted, and as a result, there’s no longer a need for students to quarantine after having been in proximity to people who tested positive for the virus.
“We have very little spread in schools,” he said. “We need to know, based on some sound reasoning, as to when should mask-wearing become optional or family choice?”
Students’ social-emotional wellbeing is off-kilter when schools are not normal, and it’s time for the state to get students back to a normal school experience that does not include wearing masks, Potter said.
“What does that transition look like? Because it’s wear masks, wear masks, wear masks and then all of a sudden you don’t have to,” he said. “So that information — that messaging — is really confusing to our families.”
The court developments caused confusion in Saratoga Springs, where a Facebook group Moving Saratoga Forward criticized a teacher at Caroline Street Elementary School who had given a student a mask to wear.
The school then received phone calls that prompted a police response.
“It doesn’t matter what side you’re on — once a message is out without explanation or clarity — that’s the only message they hear and that is not the fault of the recipient,” the Mechanicville official said. “Because you tell somebody something and that’s true for now. So across the state, you had a lot of families thinking that this was all over.”
Having said all that, Potter said it’s better to have to wear masks than revert to remote learning, which he said: “was not a good viable option for the majority of our children.”
Contact reporter Brian Lee at [email protected] or (518) 419-9766.