Confusion arises over state’s guidelines on masks in N.Y. school districts

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State officials announced on Sunday that school districts throughout New York can determine whether or not masks are required for students, staff, and teachers in outdoor settings only.

State health officials sparked confusion and controversy in New York school districts this week with shifting guidance on whether public school students and staff must continue wearing masks to stem the spread of COVID-19.

A group of school leaders said Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration created “a colossal mess” for parents and administrators alike by making it unclear how local districts should go about changing their mask policies.

The flap started last Friday, June 4, when state officials announced that the requirement to wear masks in schools would be tentatively lifted on Monday.

State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker outlined planned new mask guidance for schools in a letter to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying masks would be “strongly encouraged but not required” for New York students, staff, and teachers who are not fully vaccinated.

Masks would also not be required outdoors, and those who remained without a full inoculation series would be encouraged to wear them in “certain higher-risk” outdoor settings, Zucker said.

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But state officials later said the tentative plans outlined in Zucker’s letter were contingent on a response from the CDC. Officials said they wanted input from the federal agency on whether or not lifting the restrictions would negatively affect the health and safety of those in schools.

“No changes have been, or will be, made by the Executive until after Monday June 7 to afford the CDC an opportunity to respond to the letter,” said a statement from the state’s Education Department that was sent to districts statewide on Sunday.

Cuomo, a Democrat, tried to clarify the confusion in a Monday press conference, saying that students, staff and teachers would be required to wear masks inside, but that districts can decide whether or not masks are required in outdoor settings.

“We spoke with the CDC, and since they’re not going to change their guidance for several weeks in New York State, we’re going to modify the CDC guidance and allow schools to choose no mask outside for children,” Cuomo said. “We’ll leave that up to the local school district and we spoke to the CDC, which has no objection. It’s very important that people understand the logic between these decisions and that they’re rational and based on the science and the data.”

But the state’s Council of School Superintendents said Zucker’s letter to the CDC and the subsequent flip-flopping on mask mandates had caused headaches and uncertainty for administrators.

“The release of this letter on a Friday afternoon, with no consultation or advance notice, is too typical of what we have all experienced throughout the pandemic,” the council said in a statement. “But it’s also worse, in creating expectations among parents for immediate changes in district policies, without either explicit legal authority for action or clarity in specific requirements that may need to be considered in making any changes.”

The council also said the state had not formally changed its mask requirements even though news outlets reported Zucker’s letter as “an actual change in state requirements.”

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran initially touted the decision by state officials on Friday to leave districts in charge of whether or not masks will be enforced indoors, but later said the state’s communications had caused problems.

“The conflicting messages coming from the state regarding masks in schools are causing confusion for school officials and parents,” Curran, a Democrat, said in a statement Sunday. “This decision must be put in the hands of the educators and parents who know their children and particular circumstances best.”

Cuomo announced this week that “most” of the remaining restrictions will be lifted throughout the state once a minimum of 70 percent of New Yorkers have received at least one vaccination dose.

“With numbers trending at record lows, it is clear that the vaccine is effective and that it is an invaluable tool against the virus,” he said. “While we have come so far it is still imperative that those who have not received the vaccine do so, so that they may enjoy the state’s reimagined reopening to the fullest extent possible.”

As of Wednesday, nearly 69 percent of New Yorkers had received at least one inoculation. In Nassau County, more than 849,000 residents had received at least one vaccination, with more than 743,000 completing their full series as of Wednesday, according to state figures.

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