Beacon, Garrison Schools Will Require Masks

children masked at school

Haldane says it will release plan next week

The Beacon City School District announced this week that it would require “universal masking” of students and staff when classes begin Sept. 8, regardless of vaccination status.

At the same time, the district will not offer virtual instruction as it did last year during the height of the pandemic, except for children with medical issues that prevent them from attending in-person school.

Under federal guidelines, only students ages 12 and older can receive the vaccine made by Pfizer, leaving elementary school students vulnerable. Those made by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have emergency authorization only for adults.

Beacon Superintendent Matt Landahl said on Wednesday (Aug. 11) that he expects some parents will be upset about beginning a second straight school year with masks.

“On some level I get it,” he said. “If the data were different, we’d be preparing a different plan. But the data is high and a lot of our kids aren’t able to be vaccinated.”

However, he left the door open for modifying the plan if, as expected, vaccines are approved for children under 12.

“I don’t want to give false hope, but in my mind that’s after our younger kids have a chance to get vaccinated,” he said. “That could change the landscape.”

The Haldane district, which begins classes on Sept. 2, said it will release its safety plan next week, including whether it will offer virtual classes.

The Garrison district, where school begins Sept. 9, said it would follow the guidance of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics and Putnam County Health Department, all of which recommend universal mask-wearing indoors. The district did not renew its contract with iTutor, which provided virtual learning during the 2020-21 school year.

The lack of online learning leaves parents concerned about virus transmission at school with no options besides home schooling.

On Thursday (Aug. 12), Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who will succeed Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is resigning, told NBC that she expects New York will have a mask mandate in schools this fall.

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In October, before the arrival of a vaccine slowed transmission, New York State said county health departments could require masks in schools. (File photo by Meredith Heuer)

In May, when Cuomo announced that public schools would reopen for full-time, in-person instruction in the fall, nearly 1.2 million Americans were being inoculated each day, leading to plummeting infection rates.

But three months later, with infection rates surging behind the highly contagious delta variant, superintendents must weigh many of the same decisions they faced in the fall of 2020.

Dutchess County, with a 7-day average infection rate of 4.2 percent, is one of 18 counties in the state where transmission is considered “high.” Although the rate in Putnam, at 2.8 percent, is only “substantial,” it is bordered by high-rate counties.

Heidi Snyder, the co-owner of Drug World in Cold Spring, said she expects that once the Food and Drug Administration gives its final approval to a Pfizer vaccine, which is being distributed on an emergency basis until late-stage clinical trials are complete, it will spur a rally for vaccinations among adolescents and teenagers. In Dutchess as of Wednesday (Aug. 11), 43.5 percent of students ages 12 to 15 were vaccinated, and in Putnam, 44.7 percent. Statewide, the rate is 46 percent.

“As soon as the vaccine is cleared [by the FDA], I bet it will be mandated” by schools, she said. “Then we’re going to be swamped again.”

In states with lower vaccination rates, infections are spreading even faster as students prepare to return to school. In Florida and Texas, some local education officials are defying governors who have banned schools from requiring masks. In Florida, a group of parents sued the governor, saying a mask requirement for schools is a public health issue, not a “parents’ choice” issue, while two judges in Texas ruled this week for counties which sought to implement mandates.

Even without distancing, masks can be effective inside schools to prevent transmission, according to Duke University researchers who studied 100 districts and 14 charter schools in North Carolina. They called masks “a close second” to vaccines for preventing infections.

Return to Campus

Many students attending college in New York State have no choice but get vaccinated if they want to return to class.

Students returning to SUNY and CUNY campuses, including Dutchess Community College, will need to show proof of inoculation once the vaccines receive final approval from the FDA, although there will be exemptions offered for medical or religious reasons.

Among private colleges near the Highlands, Marist and Vassar in Poughkeepsie require vaccinations for students, faculty and staff, with exemptions.

Marist students, faculty and staff who don’t have exemptions were required to provide evidence of vaccination by Aug. 1. At Vassar, unvaccinated students and staff will have to complete a daily health assessment and wear a mask indoors. Unvaccinated students are also required to be tested weekly.

Cadets at West Point are not required to be vaccinated, but Fox News reported in June that only about three dozen of the 4,300 cadets had not received a shot, citing a leaked spreadsheet circulating on campus that listed cadets and their status. The spreadsheet had led some unvaccinated cadets to be harassed, Fox said, which the academy called “antithetical to West Point policy, ideals and Army values.”

In New York, after nearly 15 months of directives from the Department of Health, Dr. Howard Zucker, its commissioner, announced on Aug. 5 that school districts, not the state, would be “the controlling entity” to decide if masks are required.

But on Thursday (Aug. 12), the state Education Department issued guidance to aid districts in reopening. The department’s recommendations, based on CDC guidelines with input from the American Academy of Pediatrics, include universal masking and the suggestion that school districts should prepare for contingencies and be ready to go virtual, if needed.

The move was necessary “in light of the continued absence of health-related school opening direction and assistance” from the governor and the Department of Health, Education Commissioner Betty Rosa said in a statement.

Haldane will issue its reopening guidance next week, Superintendent Philip Benante said on Wednesday. Benante said he has worked over the summer with Dr. Louis Corsaro, the district physician, and the Putnam County Health Department to “ensure that our guidelines are consistent with local health data to determine the current level of community transmission and potential risk to our students and staff.”

At the private Manitou School in Philipstown and Hudson Hills Academy in Beacon, masks will also be required for all students and staff, their directors said. All staff that can be safely vaccinated at both schools have been, they said.

 Neither Landahl nor Benante could say this week how many of their districts’ teachers have been vaccinated.

In Beacon, Landahl said it’s a “large number,” likely higher than the 69.4 percent of adults in the state who are fully vaccinated. Benante estimated that more than 90 percent of Haldane’s faculty are vaccinated, noting that the school helped coordinate appointments earlier in the year.

In the last week, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s two largest teachers’ unions, both said that they support a vaccine mandate, although the NEA added that unvaccinated teachers could potentially submit to regular testing.

With so much of the country resisting the vaccines, health and education officials could have another fight on their hands if New York State adds COVID-19 to the list of vaccines required of students.

Asked this week if the state anticipates such a move, even a year or more down the road, a Health Department representative was reticent, saying only that the state “urges all eligible New Yorkers to get vaccinated as soon as possible” and will “review new information from the FDA as soon as it becomes available.”

Leonard Sparks contributed reporting.

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