Masks Stay On in School — For Now

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Educators say it’s time for ‘off-ramp’ plan

Mask confusion reigned again this week when a state judge on Monday (Jan. 24) struck down Gov. Kathy Hochul’s mask-or-vaccine mandate in public places as unconstitutional.

Instituted on Dec. 13, the order required people to either wear a mask or provide proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 before entering public buildings and came after Hochul declared a state of emergency as the highly contagious Omicron variant began surging. She said the order would be re-evaluated on Jan. 15 but extended that to Feb. 1 as cases continued to multiply. 

However, less than 24 hours after the Monday ruling, an appellate judge issued a stay, keeping the masked-or-vaccinated order in place at least until a hearing scheduled for today (Jan. 28).

The impact of the whiplash back-and-forth may have been negligible on local businesses because both Dutchess and Putnam County officials announced last month they would not enforce Hochul’s mask order. But for public school students, teachers and staff, who have worn masks since returning to in-person classes in September 2020, the flurry of activity underscored the need for consistent guidance and a plan for the end of mandatory masks.

“If there’s anything that’s become apparent in the last 24 hours, it’s that an ‘off-ramp’ is desperately needed,” Matt Landahl, the superintendent of the Beacon City School District, said on Wednesday. “Like most people, I would like to see it based on some sort of metrics,” although he acknowledged that “the data looks different based on the variant.” 

On Monday, Justice Thomas Rademaker, a state judge on Long Island, wrote that his decision wasn’t meant “to question or opine on the efficacy” of masks as a preventive measure. But he said the fact that the governor had used the Health Department to enact the mask mandate made it unlawful without approval from the Legislature. He noted that the governor’s office since March has not had the ability to issue executive orders by citing a state emergency. 

The court proceedings this week seemed to conflate two Hochul orders. Rademaker’s decision invalidated, at least for a few hours, the December emergency order. But in August, on her first day in office after Andrew Cuomo’s resignation, Hochul also enacted a “universal mask requirement” for schools. Cuomo’s plan had been to leave the mask decision to each district.

By Tuesday afternoon of this week, superintendents in Highlands districts had issued statements confirming that, despite the Rademaker ruling, their mask mandates remain in effect. 

“Our schools are operating quite differently than they were in September 2020,” Haldane Superintendent Philip Benante wrote in an email to families. He pledged to “be as deliberate as we can be in making shifts to our health and safety guidelines based on our observations, consultation with health care professionals” and state guidance and court rulings. 

Despite statements from the state Health Department supporting mask-wearing in schools, both Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell and Dutchess Executive Marc Molinaro used the legal back-and-forth as an opportunity to blast Hochul, who is a Democrat. Both Odell and Molinaro are Republicans.

Odell said in a statement that, although all Putnam school districts had notified parents that the mask requirement remains in effect, the rulings had caused disarray, “leaving children, in some cases, to bear the brunt of a misguided state policy.” Odell also said she had “heard reports of children as young as 6 years old being forced to socially distance in class because their parents sent them to school without a mask. That is heartbreaking and unacceptable.”

The county executive noted that some Westchester County districts, such as Ossining, were allowing parents to make the decision on masks until a court ruling is clearer.

Odell’s position prompted Nancy Montgomery, a Democrat who represents Philipstown and part of Putnam Valley in the county Legislature, to respond: “I have no idea what this means or why the county executive felt it necessary to make a statement. The county executive has no authority over our schools.” 

Molinaro chimed in on Monday in the private OPENDutchess Facebook group, saying that Rademaker’s ruling “puts the state on notice.” Dutchess, he said, “continues to make the case that this ought to be left to parents and their children.” 

In Beacon, Landahl said that he hopes the state will develop its “off-ramp” for masks using input from public health experts. “We’d prefer that medical folks are making the decision, not a judge,” he said. 

The superintendent credited the distribution of thousands of at-home rapid-test kits — including 1,500 the day before students returned from the holiday break in January — to district families for keeping schools open during the Omicron surge. 

“Our Beacon parents really have taken this seriously,” he said. “They’ve been testing their kids and keeping them home” if necessary. 

The district planned to send home 2,700 additional test kits with students on Thursday (Jan. 27). It has also inoculated more than 1,000 students in a half-dozen clinics held in Beacon in partnership with the Village Apothecary of Woodstock. 

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