Mask Confusion

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Change in school guidance brings relief, concern

After a weekend of confusion, public schools in the Highlands this week settled on masking requirements for the handful of days remaining in the academic year.

Masks will be required of all students and staff inside buildings at Beacon, Haldane and Garrison schools, but, citing the low transmission of the coronavirus in open air, as well as New York state’s plummeting rate of infection, masks are optional outside. 

Simple, right? It didn’t start that way.

On June 4, a Friday, Howard Zucker, the commissioner of the state health department, wrote to the director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to say that New York State intended on Monday (June 7) to implement new guidance for masks at schools and summer camps.

His letter said that masks would be “strongly encouraged” indoors, but not required, even for people not yet fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Outdoors, masks would not be required but the non-vaccinated would be encouraged to wear them “in certain higher-risk circumstances.”

Fully vaccinated people would not be required to wear masks anywhere, he said, but schools or camps could choose to implement stricter standards.

Word spread quickly, with feedback ranging from sighs of relief, especially with several days of 90-plus degree weather looming, to surprise and concern. That afternoon, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro took a jab at the state, saying in a statement: “I’m happy New York State has seen what counties have known for months: The science has repeatedly shown there is little to no transmission of the virus in school settings.” 

But Beacon parent Ryan Biracree said the dramatic shift with only days left in the school year could have forced parents who’d chosen in-person school to pull their children out at the last minute. “It would have forced kids to miss these end-of-year milestones they’ve worked so hard for — like field day, graduations, end-of-year projects,” he said. 

Matt Landahl, the superintendent of the Beacon school district, said this week that he and other school leaders, who have been conferring with county and state health officials throughout the academic year, were caught off-guard, as well.

In an email sent to parents Friday evening, Haldane Superintendent Philip Benante said that, despite Zucker’s letter, no updated guidance had been issued to schools and that students would still be required to wear masks everywhere on campus. 

On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo clarified that the state had contacted the CDC because the federal agency didn’t plan to adjust its mask guidance before the end of the school year. But the CDC didn’t object to students going maskless outdoors, and Cuomo said he would leave that decision up to each school district. 

The CDC and state agreed to keep the indoor mask requirement for the rest of this school year, leading state Sen. Sue Serino, a Republican whose district includes the Highlands, to call for “an immediate, full repeal” of Cuomo’s emergency pandemic powers. Cuomo, a Democrat, and Zucker “caused absolute chaos with their indecisiveness, even forcing some districts to go remote today with little notice given to parents,” Serino said in a statement. 

“My office has been inundated with calls and emails from parents and school officials who are beside themselves trying to keep track of the governor’s arbitrary and changing rules regarding masks in schools,” she said. “Their flip-flopping on such a critical decision is truly absurd.”

[On Friday (June 11), Serino and Molinaro issued a joint statement stating that “it no longer makes sense to force children in school to wear masks. As New York experiences some of the hottest weather of the year, mandating that every child in school wear a mask is downright dangerous. It is imperative that local control be restored and school districts and parents be given the opportunity to make their own decisions about the health and well being of their students.”]

In Beacon, Landahl told the school board on Monday that he would make masks optional outside, calling it “one of the easier decisions I’ve had to make this year.” Garrison and Haldane announced the same decision for the remaining two-and-a-half weeks of classes. 

Gracie Diaz, a Beacon parent, said she and her family dutifully wore masks during the height of the pandemic, but “the curve has been flattened.” Her daughter, a South Avenue Elementary student who is immune-compromised, contracted COVID-19 in January but only suffered a low-grade fever and body aches for two days. At this point, Diaz said she’s comfortable with the district’s decision to drop the outdoor requirement. 

“Let’s get these kids unmasked so we can keep their immune systems strong,” she said. “I get that there’s only two weeks of school left, but it’s also 90-degree weather.”

Landahl said on Wednesday that the district’s new standards will apply at Beacon High School’s graduation ceremony, which is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. today (June 11) at Dutchess Stadium. He added that he would have been OK implementing the guidelines earlier in the school year, even during the spring sports season.

“We’ve studied COVID on our own here as a district, and transmission has primarily spread inside, in peoples’ homes and their workplaces,” he said. 

Landahl acknowledged that the uncertainty of the last week could foreshadow the continued complexity schools will face in the fall, even if vaccinations are available for children younger than 12. Cuomo said on May 24 that he expects all schools in New York will open for full-time, in-person learning in September. 

Clear guidance from the state will be essential, Landahl said. “The clearer and earlier they are with it,” he said, “the more it will help us to prepare.”

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