Schools Unmask

Two students walk home from Beacon High School

Two students walk home from Beacon High School on Tuesday (March 1); the state lifted a mask mandate for schools beginning the next day. (Photo by Valerie Shively)

State says face coverings now optional

Gov. Kathy Hochul lifted the state’s mask requirement for public and private schools this week, 18 months after students and teachers returned to in-person classes following the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. 

Hochul lifted the mandate as of Wednesday (March 2), following the introduction by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of new metrics for tracking transmission of the coronavirus. Rather than relying on case counts, the agency said it would use three indicators to assess risk at the community level: new cases, new hospitalizations and hospital capacity. 

According to a tool developed by the CDC, Dutchess and Putnam counties are both considered “low” risk — a category in which the agency recommends that people stay up-to-date with vaccines and get tested if they show symptoms. 

Hochul noted that New York has had a 98 percent decline in cases since the Omicron peak earlier this year, including a continuous drop for more than 50 days.

“With more New Yorkers getting vaccinated, and the steady decline over the past several weeks in cases and hospitalizations from Omicron, we are now entering a new phase of the pandemic,” she said. “Because New Yorkers have stepped up, we can confidently remove the statewide mask requirement in our schools.”

In Beacon, the private Hudson Hills Montessori school announced it would make masks optional as of Monday (March 7), while the Manitou School in Philipstown stopped requiring masks outdoors as of Wednesday and said it would re-evaluate its indoor requirement in the next two weeks. 

Because Hochul last month also lifted an order requiring people to wear a mask or provide proof of full vaccination before entering public buildings, the state now requires masks only on public transportation and in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and shelters. (Federal rules are still in place requiring masks on flights.)

Although individual school districts can still require masks, Beacon Superintendent Matt Landahl said the data clearly supported Hochul’s decision. “I think more about next fall, next winter and dealing with another variant,” he said. “I don’t know if ‘apprehensive’ is the word, but it’s on my radar.”

“Haldane has done a good job making sure our classrooms are safe for students and staff; knowing that those precautionary measures will continue adds to the comfort level of teachers who are choosing to teach without masks,” said Andrea McCue, a special education teacher who is president of the Haldane teachers’ union. “For now, our focus in our classrooms is modeling and reinforcing mutual respect for everyone’s personal choice.”

In conversations with her colleagues, McCue said that most Haldane staff will consider using masks situationally, such as wearing them “in a more populated classroom and not wearing one in smaller classes, or teaching maskless but putting one on when working closely with a student.”

A sampling of high school students in Beacon and Cold Spring showed a wide range of emotions. After enduring two years of school closures, remote learning and masks, the reaction was, predictably, relief with some anxiety. 

“It’s weird seeing everyone without it,” said Anastasia Santise, a ninth grader at Beacon High School. “I can’t say I like it that much; it makes me feel uncomfortable to be around people who aren’t wearing them.”

Alex Danilov, a junior at Haldane, said he felt “optimistic and relieved. I will continue to wear a mask, because it has become a safety blanket for me, but the knowledge that I can take it down if I choose is very nice. 

“It will be so nice to see people’s facial expressions,” he added. “That’s a method of communication which we have partially lost over the past two years.”

Laura Bell says her daughter, who attends Beacon High School, will continue to wear a mask “because she doesn’t want to bring [an infection] home or infect anyone even though she is vaccinated and boosted.” 

Bell noted that there is still cause for concern about children younger than 5 who can’t yet be vaccinated. “It’s a double-edged sword,” she said. “The kids get to see each others’ smile and feel ‘normal’ again, but on the other side COVID is still deadly, with after-effects we know little about and are just discovering. 

“There are only four months left in the school year and it would be awful for our kids to get sick when they have been masked for two years and are almost done for the year.”

Violeta Edwards Salas, Sam Harle and Nix Spodek, members of The Current’s Student Journalists Program, contributed reporting.

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