Local districts keep mask rules while mandate moves through courts
While Gov. Kathy Hochul’s mask mandate was being hashed out in the courts, Tuesday was a hectic day for some school districts around the state as the mandate hung in limbo.
Some New York school districts made masks optional immediately on Tuesday, after the initial ruling Monday evening, and before a stay order on the repeal was approved Tuesday afternoon. Local districts asked students and staff to keep their masks on, however, staying the course in the interest of consistency, public safety and limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
There was a lot of information — and misinformation — circulating on Tuesday and schools were stuck in the middle. Amid the confusion, rapid developments and calls from parents who felt a variety of ways about the mandate and its potential repeal, local school superintendents were responding the only way they knew how — by trying to stay positive and keep things consistent for students’ sake.
“It’s just been changes, and those changes are ultimately changed further,” Lake Placid Central School District Superintendent Timothy Seymour said, laughing. “Trying to figure out where the ground is going to stabilize is a growing challenge.”
The superintendents of Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake school districts said their districts did not plan to make masks optional because the mandate was still under review by the courts.
“Whatever I do, I want to do once,” Tupper Lake Central School District Superintendent Russ Bartlett said. “I don’t want to go back and forth based on whoever ruled on what on a particular day.”
He said he would wait for a final ruling on the mandate before considering not requiring masks. Students have been “playing against a stacked deck” in school throughout the pandemic, he said.
“The only thing that I can provide for them at this time is consistency,” Bartlett said.
On Monday evening, state Supreme Court Judge Thomas Rademaker ruled that Hochul’s mask mandate can’t be enforced and was “enacted unlawfully” by the governor.
Later that evening, the state Education Department implemented a rule keeping masks required while the constitutionality of the state mandate is debated in the courts. This decision was supported by the state Department of Health.
The state was in court Tuesday afternoon appealing the ruling, and by the evening obtained a stay on the repeal until it can formally file an appeal. This essentially keeps the mask mandate in place until the courts make another ruling.
Masks maintain safety
Bartlett said the schools’ existing rules on masks and social distancing have been working.
“There hasn’t been any measurable spread coming from inside school,” he said.
He’s not jumping to change a system he says is working and said he’d need “compelling evidence” that removing masks inside school would be safe.
“We’re not seeing COVID spread in schools,” Bartlett said. “I do worry that if we lift a mask mandate that we’re taking away one of those things that has kept us safe.”
Seymour said there are COVID-19 cases in his district, but they’re usually caused by spread out in the broader community.
Saranac Lake Central School District Superintendent Diane Fox said that removing one of the districts’ layers of mitigation — masks — would have ripple effects damaging childrens’ school experiences. She said that if that layer is removed, the districts would rely more on their other layers of mitigation — namely, social distancing.
If children are required to be farther apart to stop them from spreading the virus to each other in the absence of masks, Fox said the buildings wouldn’t have room for everyone, and they’d likely have to return to remote learning.
Fox said the Essex County Health Department told her on a call Tuesday morning that the county had a 12% positivity rate for COVID-19 test results. She said to ensure best protection for kids and staff, the district should follow the state’s health and education guidance and require masks.
Fox said COVID quarantines have had a “significant impact” on high school students. There’s been a lot of those students out since school resumed earlier this month, but that number has tapered off this week.
When a student isolates or quarantines, Fox said they do asynchronous remote work. They are not video calling into classrooms like last year, but they still have access to assignments, readings and projects.
She also said there’s been staff shortages at Petrova Elementary School due to quarantines and positive cases, too — not enough to return to remote learning, as the school had to do several times last year, but close enough to be concerning.
People supporting the repeal of school mask mandates say the face coverings cause emotional, psychological and developmental damage to children.
“Forcing masks on children in our schools has already impacted the development of our next generation,” North Country Rep. Elise Stefanik wrote on social media. “Enough with these unconstitutional mask mandates. … UNMASK OUR KIDS!”
School superintendents were not convinced masks are doing mental harm to their students.
“I haven’t seen it,” Bartlett said.
Sometimes, mental strain is hard to see, but he said he hasn’t seen anything serious.
“Nobody likes it. … I don’t think it’s something that has been a terribly traumatic experience for most kids,” he said. “I’m sure there are some exceptions, and those kids deserve our attention, too.”
Fox was asked if masks cause emotional and psychological damage to children.
“No,” she said.
The masks make some things harder, but they’re not damaging the childrens’ psyche, she said. It’s better for them to be in person wearing masks than working remotely, she added.
Seymour said this question would be best asked of the students themselves. He said from what he sees, they still have joy and a sense of purpose attending school, adding that they are glad to be in person, seeing their friends, even with masks on.
Stefanik blames Hochul
Stefanik appeared incensed by the state Education Department’s decision to still require masks Tuesday.
She blamed “Hochul’s ineptitude” for causing “mass confusion” in New York school districts, accusing her of lying about there being a stay order on the court ruling.
The state had filed a motion to stay the ruling on Tuesday. It was not approved until Tuesday evening, but earlier in the day, Hochul and her state departments were telling schools to not make changes until a final decision was reached.
“School superintendents, principals, and teachers should not have to be Kathy Hochul’s mask police,” Stefanik wrote. “My office is answering calls from constituents — specifically parents who are informing us that their kids are being kept from entering schools unless they are wearing masks. THIS IS ILLEGAL. THERE IS NO STAY ON THIS COURT RULING. … Masks are not mandatory for students as of RIGHT NOW!”
She asked students or parents of students who were told they cannot attend school without wearing a mask to contact her office. Stefanik is a member of the House Education and Labor Committee and said she “will hold the New York State Department of Education accountable.”